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The Colonizer's Model 
of the World 

Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History 

J. ML Blaut 

New York / London 

© 1993 J. M. Blaut 

Published by The Guilford Press 

A Division of Guilford Publications, Inc. 

72 Spring Street, New York, N. Y. 10012 

All rights reserved 

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or 
transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, 
photocopying, microfilming, recording, or otherwise, without written 
permission from the Publisher. 

Printed in the United States of America 
This book is printed on acid-free paper. 
Last digit is print number: 9 8 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

Blaut, James M. (James Morris) 

The colonizer's model of the world : geographical diffusionism and 
eurocentric history / by J. M. Blaut. 
p. cm. 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 
ISBN 0-89862-349-9 (hard) — ISBN 0-89862-348-0 (pbk.) 
1. History — Philosophy I. Title. 
D16.9B49 1992 

901— dc20 93-22346 


To Meca, Gini, and Mother 


Many people contributed in many important 
ways to the writing of this book. Peter 
Taylor and Wilbur Zelinsky gave me great 
encouragement and wise counsel (not 
always heeded) during the years that I have been struggling with the issues 
and ideas discussed here. Among many others who contributed 
immensely to the book, and are happily given credit for many of the ideas 
it contains (the good ideas, not the errors), I wish particularly to mention 
Abdul Alkalimat, Samir Amin, William Denevan, Loida Figueroa, Andre 
Gunder Frank, William Loren Katz, Jose Lopez, Kent Mathewson, 
Antonio Rfos-Bustamante, America Sorrentini de Blaut, and Ben 
Wisner. Over the years many other people have set me to thinking about 
the problems discussed in the book and have shown me the answers to 
some of these problems. Among these friends, teachers, and students, I 
would like to mention Chao-li Chi, Ghazi Falah, Fred Hardy, Fred 
Kniffen, Juan Mari Bras, Francis Mark, Sidney Mintz, Ng Hong, Doris 
Pizarro, Randolph Rawlins, Anselme Remy, Waldo Rodriguez, Digna 
Sanchez, Howard Stanton, David Stea, and Lakshman Yapa. Peter 
Wissoker and Anna Brackett edited the book with patience and skill. A 
number of paragraphs in Chapters 3 and 4 and one in Chapter 2 are taken 
from an article in Political Geography (Blaut 1992b), and are reproduced 
here with the kind permission of the publisher of that journal, 



CHAPTER l. History Inside Out 

The Argument, 1 
The Tunnel of Time, 3 
Eurocentric Diffusionism, 8 

Eurocentrism, 8 

Diffusionism, 11 
The Colonizer's Model, 17 

Origins, 18 

Classical Diffusionism, 21 

Modem Diffusionism, 26 
World Models and Worldly Interests, 30 

The Ethnography of Beliefs, 30 

Diffusionism as a Belief System, 41 
Notes, 43 

chapter 2. The Myth of the European Miracle 

Mythmakers and Critics, 52 
Modernization as History, 53 
The Critique, 54 
The Countercritique, 58 
The Myth, 59 
Biology, 61 

Race, 61; Demography, 66 
Environment, 69 
Nasty 'Tropical Africa, 69; Arid, Despotic Asia, 80; 
Temperate Europe, 90 
Rationality, 94 
The Rationality Doctrine, 95; Rationality and the 
European Miracle, 102 



Technology, 108 
Society, 119 
State, 119; Church, 123; Class, 124; Family, 124 
Notes, 135 

chapter 3. Before 1492 

Medieval Landscapes, 153 

Protocapitalism in Africa, Asia, and Europe, 165 
Notes, 173 


chapter 4. After 1492 


Explaining 1492, 179 

Why America Was Conquered by Europeans and Not 
by Africans or Asians, 180 

Why the Conquest Was Successful, 183 

Europe in 1492, 186 
Colonialism and the Rise of Europe, 1492-1688, 187 

Colonialism and Capitalism in the Sixteenth Century, 187 
Precious Metals, 189; Plantations, 191; Effects, 193 

Colonialism and Capitalism in the Seventeenth Century, 198 
The Centration of Capitalism, 201 
Notes, 206 

chapter 5. Conclusion 214 

Notes, 215 






History Inside Out 


The purpose of this book is to undermine one of 
the most powerful beliefs of our time concern- 
ing world history and world geography. This 
belief is the notion that European civiliza- 
tion — "The West" — has had some unique historical advantage, some 
special quality of race or culture or environment or mind or spirit, which 
gives this human community a permanent superiority over all other 
communities, at all times in history and down to the present. 

The belief is both historical and geographical. Europeans are seen as 
the "makers of history." Europe eternally advances, progresses, modern- 
izes. The rest of the world advances more sluggishly, or stagnates: it is 
"traditional society." Therefore, the world has a permanent geographical 
center and a permanent periphery: an Inside and an Outside. Inside leads, 
Outside lags. Inside innovates, Outside imitates. 

This belief is diffusionism, or more precisely Eurocentric diffusionism. It 
is a theory about the way cultural processes tend to move over the surface 
of the world as a whole. They tend to flow out of the European sector and 
toward the non-European sector. This is the natural, normal, logical, and 
ethical flow of culture, of innovation, of human causality. Europe, eter- 
nally, is Inside. Non-Europe is Outside. Europe is the source of most 
diffusions; non-Europe is the recipient. 1 

Diffusionism lies at the very root of historical and geographical 
scholarship. Some parts of the belief have been questioned in recent years, 
but its most fundamental tenets remain unchallenged, and so the belief as 
a whole has not been uprooted or very much weakened by modern 

The most important tenet of diffusionism is the theory of "the 



autonomous rise of Europe," sometimes (rather more grandly) called the 
idea of "the European Miracle." It is the idea that Europe was more 
advanced and more progressive than all other regions prior to 1492, prior, 
that is, to the beginning of the period of colonialism, the period in which 
Europe and non-Europe came into intense interaction. If one believes this 
to be the case — and most modern scholars seem to believe it to be the 
case — then it must follow that the economic and social modernization of 
Europe is fundamentally a result of Europe's internal qualities, not of 
interaction with the societies of Africa, Asia, and America after 1492. 
Therefore: the main building blocks of modernity must be European. 
Therefore: colonialism cannot have been really important for Europe's 
modernization. Therefore: colonialism must mean, for the Africans, 
Asians, and Americans, not spoliation and cultural destruction but, rather, 
the receipt-by-diffusion of European civilization: modernization. 

This book will analyze and criticize Eurocentric diffusionism as a 
general body of ideas, and will try to undermine the more concrete theory 
of the autonomous rise of Europe. The first chapter of the book discusses 
the nature and history of diffusionism. Chapter 2 analyzes the theory of the 
autonomous rise of Europe as a body of propositions about European 
superiority (and "the European miracle"), then tries to disprove these 
propositions, one after the other. Chapter 3 discusses world history and 
historical geography prior to 1492, attempting to show that Europe was not 
superior to other civilizations and regions in those times. Chapter 4 argues 
that colonialism was the basic process after 1492, which led to the 
selective rise of Europe, the modernization or development of Europe (and 
outlying Europeanized culture areas like the United States), and the 
underdevelopment of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Chapter 4 also 
argues that the conquest of America and thereafter the expansion of 
European colonialism is not to be explained in terms of any internal 
characteristics of Europe, but instead reflects the mundane realities of 
location. The chain of argument in Chapters 2, 3, and 4, as a whole, 
therefore, is an attempt to show that Europe did not have historical 
priority — historical superiority — over what we now call the Third World. 

This may seem to be too ambitious a project for one small book. I am 
really making just one claim. I am asserting that a fundamental and rather 
explicit error has been made in our conventional past thinking about 
geography and history, and this error has distorted many fields of thought 
and action. I am going to present enough evidence to show that the belief 
in Eurocentric diffusionism and Europe's historical superiority or priority 
is not convincing: not well grounded in the facts of history and geography, 
although firmly grounded in Western culture. It is in a sense folklore. 



If you had gone to school in Europe or Anglo- America 150 years ago, 
around the middle of the nineteenth century, you would have been 
taught a very curious kind of history. You would have learned, for one 
thing, that every important thing that ever happened to humanity 
happened in one part of the world, the region we will call "Greater 
Europe," meaning the geographical continent of Europe itself, plus (for 
ancient times only) an enlargement of it to the southeast, the "Bible 
Lands" — from North Africa to Mesopotamia — plus (for modern times 
only) the countries of European settlement overseas. You would have 
been taught that God created Man in this region: the Garden of Eden 
was mentioned as the starting point of human history in typical world 
history textbooks of the period, and these textbooks placed Eden at 
various points between the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the 
mountains of Inner Asia. 

Some of your teachers would have also claimed that only the people 
of this region are really human: God created the people of other places 
as a different, nonhuman, or rather infrahuman, species. And all of your 
teachers of science as well as history would have agreed that 
non-Europeans are not as intelligent, not as honorable, and (for the most 
part) not as courageous as Europeans: God made them inferior. If you had 
asked your teachers why Europeans are more human and more intelligent 
than everyone else you would perhaps have been chastised for asking 
such a question. You would have been told that a Christian God created 
and now manages the world, and it would be both silly and blasphemous 
to suggest that He might show the same favor to non-Europeans, 
non-Christians, that He does to those people who worship the True God 
and moreover worship Him with the proper sacrament. 

If you had been studying geography as well as history back in the 
middle of the nineteenth century, you would indeed have learned 
something about the non-European world. The people living in Africa 
and Asia would have been depicted not only as inferior but as in some 
sense evil. They are the people who refused to accept God's grace and so 
have fallen from His favor. Africans are thus cruel savages, for whom the 
best possible fate is to be put to useful work, and Christianized. Chinese 
and Indians for some unknown reason managed to build barbaric 
civilizations of their own, but because they are not Europeans and not 
Christians, their civilizations long ago began to stagnate and regress. And, 
for all their splendor, these never were real civilizations: they are cruel 
"Oriental despotisms." Only Europeans know true freedom. 


Ideas of course change, and if you had gone to school some 50 years 
later, around the turn of the century, you would have been taught a much 
more secular form of history, and it would have had a strongly 
evolutionary (though not yet Darwinian) flavor. You would have learned 
that the earth is very old, that life is old, and that our species itself has 
been around for a long time. But everything important still happened in 
Europe (that is, in Greater Europe). The first true man, Cro-Magnon, 
lived in Europe. Agriculture was invented in Greater Europe (perhaps in 
the continent, perhaps in the Bible Lands, Europe's self-proclaimed 
cultural hearth). You would have been told in world history class that the 
first barbaric beginnings of civilization occurred in the Bible Lands. There 
in the Bible Lands emerged the two Caucasian peoples who make all of 
history. The Semites invented cities and empires, and gave us 
monotheism and Christianity, but stopped at that point and then sank 
back into Oriental decadence. The Aryans or Indo-Europeans, freedom- 
loving though backward folk, built on these foundations, migrating from 
southeastern Europe or western Asia into and through geographical 
Europe, and creating the first genuinely civilized society, that of ancient 
Greece. Then the Romans raised civilization to its next level, and 
thereafter world history marched inexorably northwestward. If your 
school was in England you would have been told that History marched 
from "the Orient" (the Bible Lands) to Athens, to Rome, to feudal 
France, and finally to modern England — a kind of westbound Orient 

By now a secular picture of the geography of non-Europe had begun 
to be taught in European schools. Africans continued to be described as 
savages and Oriental societies as decadent and despotic. But important 
changes had taken place in the relations between Europe and non-Europe 
during the course of the nineteenth century, and by 1900 a particular 
theory about this relationship had become fixed in popular discourse and 
was now taught in schools as standard world geography. This was the 
theory (described later in this chapter) according to which non- 
Europeans can and do rise to a civil izational level, if not equal to that of 
Europeans at least near that level, under European tutelage, that is, under 
European colonial control. 

Suppose we move forward another half century, to the history and 
geography taught around the end of World War II. Not much change. 
The first True Man is still the Cro-Magnon of Europe. Agriculture was 
invented in the Bible Lands; so too was barbaric civilization. True 
civilization still marches from Athens to Rome to Paris to London, and 
perhaps sets sail then for New York. Non-Europeans do not contribute 
much to world history, although they begin to do so as a result of 


European influence. (Colonial peoples learn from their tutors; Japanese 
imitate successfully, and so on.) Europeans are still brighter, better, and 
bolder than everyone else. 2 

We can sum all of this up with an image that will prove quite useful 
in this book. This is the idea that the world has an Inside and an Outside. 
World history thus far has been, basically, the history of Inside. Outside 
has been, basically, irrelevant. History and historical geography as it was 
taught, written, and thought by Europeans down to the time of World 
War II, and still (as we will see) in most respects today, lies, as it were, in 
a tunnel of time. The walls of this tunnel are, figuratively, the spatial 
boundaries of Greater Europe. History is a matter of looking back or down 
in this European tunnel of time and trying to decide what happened 
where, when, and why. "Why" of course calls for connections among 
historical events, but only among the events that lie in the European 
tunnel. Outside its walls everything seems to be rockbound, timeless, 
changeless tradition. I will call this way of thinking "historical tunnel 
vision," or simply "tunnel history." 

The older form of tunnel history simply ignored the non-European 
world: typical textbooks and historical atlases devoted very few pages to 
areas outside of Greater Europe (that is, Europe and countries of European 
settlement overseas plus, for ancient history and the Crusades, the Near 
East), until one came to the year 1492. Non- Europe (Africa, Asia east of 
the Bible Lands, Latin America, Oceania) received significant notice 
only as the venue of European colonial activities, and most of what was 
said about this region was essentially the history of empire. 3 Not only was 
the great bulk of attention devoted to Greater Europe in these older 
textbooks and historical atlases, but world history was described as flowing 
steadily westward with the passage of time, from the Bible Lands to 
eastern Mediterranean Europe, to northwestern Europe. This pattern is 
readily discernible if we notice the salience of places mentioned in these 
sources, that is, the frequency of place-name mentions for different 
regions at different periods. For the earliest period, place-name mentions 
cluster in the Bible Lands and the extreme eastern Mediterranean. For 
successively later periods, place-name mentions cluster farther and farther 
to the west and northwest, finally clustering in northwestern Europe for 
the period after about A.D. 1000: this is the "Orient Express" pattern to 
which we referred previously. 

After World War II, however, history textbooks began to exhibit 
another, more subtle, form of tunnel history. The non-European world 
was now beginning to insert itself very firmly in European consciousness, 
in the aftermath of the war with Japan and in the midst of the intensified 
decolonization struggles, the Civil Rights movement in the United 


States, and the like. Most newer textbooks enlarged the discussion of 
non-European history, and said something about the historical achieve- 
ments of non-European cultures. Most textbooks gave a flavor of 
historicity, of evolutionary progress, to non-European history, thus 
departing from the older pattern, which dismissed these societies as 
stagnant and nonevolving. Asian societies were now described as having 
had an evolutionary motion, though a motion slower than that of Europe. 
Africa was still described as stagnant, history-less, prior to the colonial 
era. More salience was given to Asia. However, Africa and the Western 
Hemisphere still received little mention for eras prior to 1492. The 
pattern of place-name mentions in most (not all) texts and historical 
atlases still suggested a flow to the west and northwest, from the Near East 
to western Europe. And tunnel history dominated most textbooks in the 
most important matter of all, the question of "why," of explanation. 
Historical progress still came about because Europeans invented or 
initiated most of the crucial innovations, which only later spread out to 
the rest of the world. So the textbooks depicted a world in which 
historical causes were to be found basically inside the European tunnel of 
time, although historical effects were to be seen basically everywhere.' 1 

Textbooks are an important window into a culture; more than just 
books, they are semiofficial statements of exactly what the opinion- 
forming elite of the culture want the educated youth of that culture. to 
believe to be true about the past and present world. 5 As we have seen, 
European and Anglo-American history textbooks assert that most of the 
causes of historical progress occur, or originate, in the European sector of 
the world. Textbooks of the early and middle nineteenth century tended 
to give a rather openly religious grounding for this Eurocentric tunnel 
history. In later textbooks the Bible is no longer considered a source of 
historical fact, but causality seems to be rooted in an implicit theory that 
combines a belief that Christian peoples make history with a belief that 
white peoples make history, the whole becoming a theory that it is natural 
for Europeans to innovate and progress and for non-Europeans to remain 
stagnant and unchanging ("traditional"), until, like Sleeping Beauty, 
they are awakened by the Prince. This view still, in the main, prevails, 
although racism has been discarded and non-Europe is no longer 
considered to have been absolutely stagnant and traditional. 

Schools are always a little behind the time when it comes to the 
teaching of newer topics and ideas. I wish I could report that the old 
notions about Inside and Outside are today just artifacts, still taught in 
some schools because of the usual lag between research and pedagogy, but 
which have been discarded by Real Scholars, those who pursue historical 
research and write the important and influential books on world history. 


But this is not the case. In the matter that concerns us most, that of 
explaining the larger flows of world history, the views put forward by 
historical scholars today tend to be quite consonant with the theories 
projected in textbooks. We can set aside the fact that many of the most 
widely used textbooks, today as in the past, are written by prominent 
historical scholars. There are many complex cultural reasons why 
historical scholarship remains committed to Eurocentric explanations for 
most of the crucial developments in world history: we will discuss some of 
these reasons later in the present chapter and return to the question at 
various points throughout the book. Suffice it at this point to notice a 
very peculiar paradox. Historians have amassed a fine record of 
meticulous scholarship, and rarely indeed do we encounter prejudice or 
deliberate distortion in their work. Moreover, their judgments about 
historical causation are constrained by the same methodological rigor as 
we find in any other field of scholarship. It is only when we come to the 
larger issues of causation, matters of explaining historical progress over 
long periods and for larger regions, and matters of explaining profound 
revolutions in history, that Eurocentrism exerts an important influence 
on discourse, and often — as we will see — leads to the acceptance of poor 
theories in spite of a lack of supporting evidence. 

Most European historians still maintain that most of the really 
crucial historical events, those that "changed history," happened in 
Europe, or happened because of some causal impetus from Europe. 
("Europe" continues to mean "Greater Europe.") To illustrate this fact, I 
will list now, in historical order, a series of crucial Europe-centered 
propositions. All of them are accepted as true by the majority, in some 
cases the great majority, of European historical scholars. Some of them 
indeed are true, but that is beside the present point, which is to show that 
historical reasoning still focuses on Greater Europe as the perpetual 
fountainhead of history. 

1. The Neolithic Revolution — the invention of agriculture and the 
beginnings of a settled way of life for humanity — occurred in the 
Middle East (or the Bible Lands). This view was unopposed before 
about 1930, and is still the majority view. 

2. The second major step in cultural evolution toward modern 
civilization, the emergence of the earliest states, cities, organized 
religions, writing systems, division of labor, and the like, was taken in 
the Middle East. 

3. The Age of Metals began in the Middle East. Ironworking was 
invented in the Middle East or eastern Europe and the "Iron Age" 
first appeared in Europe. 


4. Monotheism appeared first in the Middle East. 

5. Democracy was invented in Europe (in ancient Greece). 

6. Likewise most of pure science, mathematics, philosophy, history, and 

7. Class society and class struggle emerged first in the Greco-Roman era 
and region. 6 

8. The Roman Empire was the first great imperial state. Romans 
invented bureaucracy, law, and so on. 

9. The next great stage in social evolution, feudalism, was developed in 
Europe, with Frenchmen taking the lead. 7 

10. Europeans invented a host of technological traits in the Middle Ages 
which gave them superiority over non-Europeans. (On this matter 
there are considerable differences of opinion.). 

1 1 . Europeans invented the modern state. 

12. Europeans invented capitalism. 

13. Europeans, uniquely "venturesome," were the great explorers, 
"discoverers," etc. 

14- Europeans invented industry and created the Industrial Revolution. 

. . . and so on down to the present. 

All of the propositions in this list are widely accepted tenets of 
European historical scholarship today, although (as we will see) there is 
scholarly dispute about some of the propositions. All of this means that 
you and I learned these things, perhaps in elementary school, perhaps in 
university, perhaps in books and newspapers. We learned that all of this 
is the truth. But is it? Clearly, some of these propositions are true. Some 
others are true with qualifications. But some, as I will argue in this book, 
are not true at all: they are artifacts of the old tunnel history, in which 
Outside plays no crucial role and Inside is credited with everything 
important and everything efficacious. 


What we are talking about here is generally called, these days, 
"Eurocentrism." 8 This word is a label for all the beliefs that postulate past 
or present superiority of Europeans over non- Europeans (and over 
minority people of non-European descent). A strong critique of 
Eurocentrism is underway in all fields of social thought, and this book is 
certainly part of that critique. 


There is, however, a problem with the word "Eurocentrism." In most 
discourse it is thought of as a sort of prejudice, an "attitude," and therefore 
something that can be eliminated from modern enlightened thought in 
the same way we eliminate other relic attitudes such as racism, sexism, 
and religious bigotry. But the really crucial part of Eurocentrism is not a 
matter of attitudes in the sense of values and prejudices, but rather a 
matter of science, and scholarship, and informed and expert opinion. To 
be precise, Eurocentrism includes a set of beliefs that are statements about 
empirical reality, statements educated and usually unprejudiced Europe- 
ans accept as true, as propositions supported by "the facts." Consider, for 
instance, the 14 propositions about Europe's priority in historical 
innovation which we listed above. Historians who accept these 
propositions as true would be most indignant if we described the 
propositions as "Eurocentric beliefs." Every historian in this category 
would deny emphatically that he or she holds any Eurocentric prejudices, 
and very few of them actually do hold such prejudices. If they assert that 
Europeans invented democracy, science, feudalism, capitalism, the 
modern nation-state, and so on, they make these assertions because they 
think that all of this is fact. 

Eurocentrism, therefore, is a very complex thing. We can banish all 
the value meanings of this word, all the prejudices, and we still have 
Eurocentrism as a set of empirical beliefs. 

This, in a way, is the central problem for this book. We confront 
statements of presumed historical and scientific fact, not prejudices and 
biases, and we try to show, with history and science, that the 
presumptions are wrong: these statements are false. 

How is it that Eurocentric historical statements which are not 
valid — that is, not confirmed by evidence and sometimes contradicted by 
evidence — are able to gain acceptance in European historical thought, 
and thereafter survive as accepted beliefs, hardly ever questioned, for 
generations and even centuries? This is a crucial problem for historiogra- 
phy and the history of ideas. To deal with it satisfactorily would take us 
well beyond the scope of this book, the main concern of which is 
empirical history and geography. Yet the problem cannot be avoided here. 
Libraries are full of scholarly studies that support the Eurocentric 
historical positions we are rejecting and refuting in this book. The sheer 
quantity of this work, and the respect that is properly owed to the scholars 
who assembled it, makes it certain that one cannot convincingly refute 
these positions with the factual arguments that can be presented in one 
book. No matter how persuasive these arguments may be, they cannot be 
placed, so to speak, on one arm of a balance and be expected to outweigh 
all of the accumulated writings of generations of European scholars, 


textbook writers, journalists, publicists, and the rest, heaped up on the 
other arm of the balance. 

So, in this book, we must make a sort of two-level argument. The 
main level is the empirical one: What did happen inside and outside of 
Europe in the medieval and early modern centuries, and what 
connections did take place between the two sectors in that period? At the 
second level, we will look at some pertinent aspects of the history of 
Eurocentric ideas and the social context surrounding these ideas. This 
will be done mainly in the present chapter, which analyzes the nature and 
history of diffusionist ideas and concludes with a discussion of the process 
of social licensing by which these ideas gain currency and hegemony, and 
in Chapter 2, which rather systematically examines the most important 
arguments for European superiority prior to 1492 and to an extent 
discusses their historical genealogies. 

Scholars today are aware, as most were not a few decades ago, that 
the empirical, factual beliefs of history, geography, and social science very 
often gain acceptance for reasons that have little to do with evidence. 
Scholarly beliefs are embedded in culture, and are shaped by culture. This 
helps to explain the paradox that Eurocentric historical beliefs are so 
strangely persistent; that old myths continue to be believed in long after 
the rationale for their acceptance has been forgotten or rejected (as in the 
arguments grounded in belief in the Old Testament as literal history); 
that newer candidate beliefs gain acceptance without supporting 
evidence if they are properly Eurocentric; and that, most generally, the 
Eurocentric body of beliefs as a whole retains its persuasiveness and 
power. But there is more to the matter than this. Eurocentrism is, as I will 
argue at great length in this book, a unique set of beliefs, and uniquely 
powerful, because it is the intellectual and scholarly rationale for one of 
the most powerful social interests of the European elite. I will argue not 
only that European colonialism initiated the development of Europe (and 
the underdevelopment of non-Europe) in 1492, but that since then the 
wealth obtained from non-Europe, through colonialism in its many forms, 
including neocolonial forms, has been a necessary and very important 
basis for the continued development of Europe and the continued power 
of Europe's elite. For this reason, the development of a body of 
Eurocentric beliefs, justifying and assisting Europe's colonial activities, 
has been, and still is, of very great importance. Eurocentrism is quite 
simply the colonizer's model of the world. 

Eurocentrism is the colonizer's model of the world in a very literal 
sense: it is not merely a set of beliefs, a bundle of beliefs. It has evolved, 
through time, into a very finely sculpted model, a structured whole; in fact 
a single theory; in fact a super theory, a general framework for many 


smaller theories, historical, geographical, psychological, sociological, and 
philosophical. This supertheory is diffusionism. 


When culture change takes place in a human community, that change 
can be the result of an invention that occurred within this community. Or 
it can be the result of a process in which the idea or its material effect 
(such as a tool, an art style, etc.) came into the community, having 
originated in some other community, in some other part of the landscape. 
The first sort of event is called "independent invention." The second is 
called "diffusion." 9 Both processes occur everywhere. So far so good. But 
some scholars believe that independent invention is rather uncommon, 
and therefore not very important in culture change in the short run and 
cultural evolution in the long run. These scholars believe that most 
humans are imitators, not inventors. Therefore diffusion, in their view, is 
the main mechanism for change. 

The scholars who hold this view are called "diffusionists." Whenever 
they encounter a cultural innovation in a particular region, they are 
inclined to look diligently for a process of diffusion into that region from 
somewhere else, somewhere the trait is already in use. For instance, the 
fact that the blow-gun is traditionally used among some Native American 
peoples as well as some Old World peoples is explained by diffusionists as 
being the result of the diffusion of this trait from the Old World to the 
New: the New World people, they believe, probably did not invent the 
trait for themselves. Why? Because they probably were not inventive 
enough to do so. A larger form of this same diffusionist argument claims 
that the great pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas must be, 
ultimately, the result of transpacific or transatlantic diffusions, because 
these civilizing traits (agriculture, temple architecture, writing, and so on) 
were found much earlier in the Old World than the New, and Native 
Americans probably were not inventive enough to think up these things 
on their own. 10 Some scholars, those who have been traditionally 
described as "extreme diffusionists," believe that all civilization diffused 
from one original place on earth: some of them think that this original 
source of civilization was ancient Egypt, others place it somewhere in 
Central Asia (for instance, the Caucasus region — which scholars used to 
think was the original home of the "white" or "Caucasian" race). 11 

The debates between diffusionists and their opponents have been 
going on for more than a century in anthropology, geography, history, and 
all fields concerned about long-term, large-scale cultural evolution. 12 The 


antidiffusionists (often called "evolutionists" or "independent-invention- 
ists") have tended to level two basic charges against the diffusionists: 

1. Diffusionists hold much too sour a view of human ingenuity: 
people are in fact quite inventive and innovative, so the possibility that 
new culture traits will appear as a result of independent invention is 
actually vastly greater than diffusionists admit. So investigators should 
consider the possibility of independent invention in any given case, 
rather than assuming a priori that a diffusion process explains the 
situation at which one is looking. 

2. Diffusionists are elitists. Every diffusion must start somewhere. An 
invention must take place in some one community before it begins to 
spread (diffuse) to others. If we accept the quite fundamental assumption 
that all human groups are truly human in their thinking apparatuses, and 
therefore broadly similar in their ability to invent and innovate — this 
assumption is known as "the psychic unity of mankind," a nineteenth- 
century label that is quaint but still in use — we would expect inventions to 
occur everywhere across the human landscape. 13 But most diffusionists 
claim that only certain select communities are inventive. In other words, most 
communities change only as a result of receiving new traits by diffusion, 
but some places are uniquely inventive and are the original sources of the 
new traits. The people of these communities are more inventive than are 
people elsewhere. The psychic unity of mankind is denied: some people, or 
cultures, are simply smarter than others. They are permanent centers of 
invention and innovation. 

This is spatial elitism. If we make a map of this landscape, we find 
that it has a permanent center and a permanent periphery. For the 
"extreme diffusionists" the entire world was mapped out this way, at least 
for the pre-Christian era: the permanent center of invention and 
innovation was thought to be Egypt, or the "Ancient Aryan Homeland" 
(a mythical place located somewhere in western Asia or southeastern 
Europe), or the Caucasus, or some other supposed navel of the ancient 
world. But the charge was leveled more broadly: diffusionists as a group 
tended to imagine that some few places, or some one place, was the 
primary source from which culture spread to all the other places. 

It should be evident that diffusionism is very nicely suited to the idea 
that the world has an Inside and an Outside. In fact, diffusionism was the 
most fully developed scientific (or pseudoscientific) rationale for the idea 
of Inside and Outside. That idea, as we saw, postulates one permanent 
world center for new ideas; cultural evolution everywhere else results, 


broadly, from the diffusion of new ideas from this permanent center. This 
is simply the diffusionists' map on a world scale. 

We come now to a fascinating anomaly. The critics of diffusionism, 
in the nineteenth century and even in the twentieth century, failed 
entirely to grasp the full implications of their critique. None of them 
denied that the world has an Inside and an Outside. While criticizing the 
diffusionists for their rejection of the principle of the psychic unity of 
mankind, the antidiffusionists nonetheless believed that cultural evolu- 
tion has been centered in Europe, and they therefore accepted the 
idea — explicitly or implicitly — that Europeans are more inventive, more 
innovative than everyone else. 1 "* This is made explicit when they write 
about recent centuries, and particularly when they discuss the moderniz- 
ing, missionarizing effect of European colonialism. It is also implicit in 
their writings about ancient times. These anthropologists, archaeologists, 
geographers, and historians of the second half of the nineteenth century 
and the present century do not focus on the Bible Lands, and their 
scholarly writings do not display any acceptance of religious assumptions. 
Yet Inside and Outside are explicit. They write about the Near Eastern 
origins of agriculture, of urbanization, and so forth. They then move 
smoothly to arguments about European origins of most of the rest of 

My basic argument is this: all scholarship is diffusionist insofar as it 
axiomatically accepts the Inside-Outside model, the notion that the world 
as a whole has one permanent center from which culture-changing ideas 
tend to originate, and a vast periphery that changes as a result (mainly) of 
diffusion from that single center. I do not argue that the formal theory of 
diffusionism, as it was advanced and defended by scholars in the nine- 
teenth and early twentieth centuries, explains the Inside-Outside model, 
the mythology of Europe's permanent geographical superiority and prior- 
ity. Rather, the theory developed as a result of broad social forces in 
Europe, and entered the world of scholarship from outside of that world — 
from European society. Diffusionist scholars were, in essence, elaborating 
and codifying this theory in the realms of scholarship within which they 
worked: realms like archaeology, world history, and so on. 

Before we proceed further I must post a warning: the word "diffusion- 
ist" has some ambiguities, and these should not be allowed to bring 
confusion into the present discussion. In any given debate as to whether a 
novel trait in a certain place was invented by the people of that place or 
was received from elsewhere by diffusion, those scholars who take the 
latter view are supporters of a "diffusionist" position, that is, they 
favor the specific hypothesis of diffusion as against that of independent 


invention. This does not necessarily mean that they have a general 
propensity to favor diffusion as a causal formula. Sometimes the specific 
issue can be a very major problem. For instance, some scholars argue that 
important West African culture traits diffused across the Atlantic to 
America before 1492. Whether they are right or wrong in this matter, they 
are not arguing any sort of Eurocentric diffusionism, nor do they necessar- 
ily favor diffusion over independent invention in other contexts. But most 
scholars who are consistent diffusionists are also Eurocentric diffusionists. 

Now I will describe Eurocentric diffusionism in somewhat formal 
terms as a scientific theory. That theory has changed through time, but its 
basic structure has remained essentially unchanged. I will describe what 
can be called the classical (essentially nineteenth-century) form of the 
theory, leaving until a later section of this chapter a discussion of the not 
very dissimilar modern form. 

Diffusionism is grounded, as we saw, in two axioms: ( 1 ) Most human 
communities are uninventive. (2) A few human communities (or places, 
or cultures) are inventive and thus remain the permanent centers of 
culture change, of progress. At the global scale, this gives us a model of a 
world with a single center — roughly, Greater Europe — and a single periph- 
ery; an Inside and an Outside. There are a number of variants of this 
two-sector model. Sometimes the two sectors are treated as sharply 
distinct, with a definite boundary between them. (This form of the model 
is the familiar one. It is sometimes called the "Center-Periphery Model of 
the World.") Another form sees the world in a slightly different way: there 
is a clear and definite center, but outside of it there is gradual change, 
gradual decline in degree of civilization or progressiveness or innovative- 
ness, as one moves outward into the periphery. Another variant depicts 
the world as divided into zones, each representing a level of modernity or 
civilization or development. 15 The classical division was one with three 
great bands: "civilization," "barbarism," and "savagery." 

The basic model of diffusionism in its classical form depicts a world 
divided into the prime two sectors, one of which (Greater Europe, Inside) 
invents and progresses, the other of which (non-Europe, Outside) receives 
progressive innovations by diffusion from Inside. From this base, diffusion- 
ism asserts seven fundamental arguments about the two sectors and the 
interactions between them: 

1. Europe naturally progresses and modernizes. That is, the natural 
state of affairs in the European sector (Inside) is to invent, innovate, 
change things for the better. Europe changes; Europe is "historical." 

2. Non-Europe (Outside) naturally remains stagnant, unchanging, 


traditional, and backward. Invention, innovation, and change are not the 
natural state of affairs, and not to be expected, in non-European 
countries. Non-Europe does not change; non-Europe is "ahistorical." 

Propositions 3 and 4 explain the difference between the two sectors - . 

3. The basic cause of European progress is some intellectual or 
spiritual factor, something characteristic of the "European mind," the 
"European spirit," "Western Man," etc., something that leads to 
creativity, imagination, invention, innovation, rationality, and a sense of 
honor or ethics: "European values." 

4- The reason for non-Europe's nonprogress is a lack of this same 
intellectual or spiritual factor. This proposition asserts, in essence, that 
the landscape of the non-European world is empty, or partly so, of 
"rationality," that is, of ideas and proper spiritual values. There are a 
number of variations of this proposition in classical (mainly late- 
nineteenth-century) diffusionism. Two are quite important: 

a. For much of the non-European world, this proposition asserts an 
emptiness also of basic cultural institutions, and even an emptiness of 
people. This can be called the diffusionist myth of emptiness, and it has 
particular connection to settler colonialism (the physical movement of 
Europeans into non-European regions, displacing or eliminating the 
native inhabitants). This proposition of emptiness makes a series of 
claims, each layered upon the others: (i) A non-European region is 
empty or nearly empty of people (hence settlement by Europeans does 
not displace any native peoples), (ii) The region is empty of settled 
population: the inhabitants are mobile, nomadic, wanderers (hence 
European settlement violates no political sovereignty, since wanderers 
make no claim to territory, (iii) The cultures of this region do not 
possess an understanding of private property — that is, the region is 
empty of property rights and claims (hence colonial occupiers can 
freely give land to settlers since no one owns it). The final layer, 
applied to all of the Outside sector, is an emptiness of intellectual 
creativity and spiritual values, sometimes described by Europeans (as, 
for instance, by Max Weber) as an absence of "rationality." 16 

b. Some non-European regions, in some historical epochs, are assumed to 
have been "rational" in some ways and to some degree. Thus, for 
instance, the Middle East during biblical times was rational. China was 
somewhat rational for a certain period in its history. 17 Other regions, 
always including Africa, are unqualifiedly lacking in rationality. 


Propositions 5 and 6 describe the ways Inside and Outside interact: 

5. The normal, natural way that the non-European part of the world 
progresses, changes for the better, modernizes, and so on, is by the diffusion 
(or spread) of innovative, progressive ideas from Europe, which flow into 
it as air flows into a vacuum. This diffusion may take the form of the spread 
of European ideas as such, or the spread of new products in which the 
European ideas are concretized, or the spread (migration, settlement) of 
Europeans themselves, bearers of these new and innovative ideas. 

Proposition 5, you will observe, is a simple justification for European 
colonialism. It asserts that colonialism, including settler colonialism, 
brings civilization to non-Europe; is in fact the natural way that the 
non-European world advances out of its stagnation, backwardness, 

But under colonialism, wealth is drawn out of the non-European 
colonies and enriches the European colonizers. In Eurocentric diffu- 
sionism this too is seen as a normal relationship between Inside and 

6. Compensating in part for the diffusion of civilizing ideas from 
Europe to non-Europe, is a counterdiffusion of material wealth from 
non-Europe to Europe, consisting of plantation products, minerals, art 
objects, labor, and so on. Nothing can fully compensate the Europeans for 
their gift of civilization to the colonies, so the exploitation of colonies 
and colonial peoples is morally justified. (Colonialism gives more than it 

And there is still another form of interaction between Inside and Outside. 
It is the opposite of the diffusion of civilizing ideas from Europe to 
non-Europe (proposition 5): 

7. Since Europe is advanced and non-Europe is backward, any ideas 
that diffuse into Europe must be ancient, savage, atavistic, uncivilized, 
evil — black magic, vampires, plagues, "the bogeyman," and the like. 18 
Associated with this conception is the diffusionist myth which has been 
called "the theory of our contemporary ancestors." It asserts that, as we 
move farther and farther away from civilized Europe, we encounter people 
who, successively, reflect earlier and earlier epochs of history and culture. 
Thus the so-called "stone-age people" of the Antipodes are likened to the 
Paleolithic Europeans. The argument here is that diffusion works in 
successive waves, spreading outward, such that the farther outward we go 


the farther backward we go in terms of cultural evolution. But conversely, 
there is the possibility that these„ ancient, atavistic, etc., traits will 
counterdiffuse back into the civilized core, in the form of ancient, magical, 
evil things like black magic, Dracula, etc. 

The main oppositions between the two sectors can be shown in 
tabular form. The following contrast-sets are quite typical in nineteenth- 
century diffusionist thought: 

Characteristic of Core 
Rationality, intellect 
Abstract thought 
Theoretical reasoning 

Characteristic of Periphery 

Irrationality, emotion, instinct 

Concrete thought 

Empirical, practical reasoning 

Body, matter 






What I have described thus far is, of course, a highly simplified version of 
the diffusionist world model. We will add qualifications and modifica- 
tions as we proceed, and in particular we will see that there are significant 
differences between the classical form of diffusionism and the modern 
form of the model. 

So much for what diffusionism is. What does it do 7 . In this book I will 
show in some detail how diffusionism has shaped our views of history, 
both European and non-European. Later in the present chapter and in 
Chapter 2 I will show some of the concrete influences of diffusionism on 
theories outside of history, some in psychology, some in geography, some 
in economics, some in sociology. 

But this discussion will be more meaningful after a different question 
has been addressed. This is the question of how and why diffusionism 
became such a foundation theory in Western thought. To this question 
we now turn. 


Perhaps all civilizations have a somewhat ethnocentric view of 
themselves in relation to their neighbors, believing themselves better, 


brighter, and bolder than every other human community and construct- 
ing empirical theories to explain why this is the case, and to explain away 
embarrassments. Perhaps we would find the seeds of diffusionism in all 
these beliefs: the idea that progress is natural and calls for no explanation 
in "our" society but is unnatural or at, any rate, less impressive in "their" 
societies; the idea that "they" progress by borrowing from "us" and 
imitating "our" ideas; and so on. But this does not add up to the theory of 
diffusionism, nor is it very important for an understanding of diffusionism. 
Diffusionism as I have been discussing it is a product of modern European 
colonialism. It is the colonizer's model of the world. 


Diffusionism became a fully formed scientific theory during the 
nineteenth century. The origins of the theory, however, go back to the 
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Western Europe, where a belief 
system was being constructed to give some coherence to the new reality of 
change within Europe and colonial expansion outside Europe. The 
conception of a two-sector world, the diffusionist distinction between 
Inside and Outside, emerged from a very old conception of Christendom 
and the Roman imperial legacy (which meant, for most of western and 
southern Europe, a common source of legitimacy for the political and 
landholding elites). But it is certainly not true that medieval Europeans 
saw Christendom as a sharply defined space, naturally in conflict with 
surrounding societies. Nor did medieval European thinkers have many 
illusions about the relative power, wealth, and technological prowess of 
Christendom as compared with Islamic and Oriental civilizations. But 
certainly they had some idea, not of a collective identity, but of a 
distinction between the lands inhabited by Christians, given divine 
guidance and protection for this reason, and the lands of non-Christians. 
Nevertheless, it was only after 1492 that Inside acquired a sharp geograph- 
ical definition, less as a result of medieval ideas than of colonialism in the 
early modern period. 

European ideas about European progressiveness, Europe's somehow 
inevitable progress, are also essentially postmedieval. Obviously, these 
ideas were being discussed during the Middle Ages, and certainly there 
was hope, prayer, and struggle for betterment, but medieval folk tended 
rather to see their society as being in a relative state of equilibrium; their 
religion spoke of the Fall, and of the need to accept existing conditions 
(and rules), while the reality of medieval life (particularly fourteenth- and 
fifteenth-century life) was not one of perceptible forward progress for the 
mass of people. But European thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth 


centuries were coming to conceive of history — their own history — as a 
progressive process. Real progress (or at any rate accelerating change) 
indeed was taking place in the communities occupied by these thinkers, 
and the climate of ideas was changing in a complex but close association 
with the rise of capitalism, the expansion of opportunity for individuals in 
many regions, and the like. 

One of the main problems confronted by these early modern 
thinkers, both secular and religious, was the need to establish a belief 
system, an ideology, that would convince conservative sectors of the 
European community to accept the idea that progress is inevitable, 
natural, and desirable, and thus to accept changes in the legal system 
which would permit more rapid and widespread capital accumulation, to 
persuade the landowning classes to treat land as a commodity and invest 
their real holdings in risk enterprises, to introduce laws and practices to 
mobilize labor for emerging capitalist activities at home and abroad, to 
persuade Europeans in general to accept the painful changes being 
imposed on them, and so on. Equally important was the need to explain 
progress in ways that accorded with religion. This was done by seeing 
God's guidance of (European) history, and by conceptualizing progressive 
innovations as being products of the European mind or spirit and thus 
ultimately products of the Christian soul. (We will go into these matters 
later in this book.) 

Thus emerged the conception of Inside as being naturally progressive 
(diffusionist proposition 1), and as being progressive because of the 
workings of an intellectual or spiritual force, "European rationality" 
(diffusionist proposition 3). By the eighteenth century it had become the 
practice in secular writings to discuss causality in history and philosophy 
without referencing God and Scriptures, but the basic model of European 
progress as natural, as rational, remained unchanged in its essence; 
became, indeed, much fortified. 19 In none of this thought was there any 
real suspicion that non-European civilizations might have had much to 
do with the earlier, medieval progress of Christian Europe, or much to do 
with its modern (sixteenth- to eighteenth-century) progress except in the 
purely passive role of provider of labor, commodities, and land for 
settlement, and, marginally, in some traits of technology and art. Nor was 
there very much awareness that colonialism and its windfalls — inflow of 
capital, intensification of intra-as well as extra-European trade, increase 
in employment opportunities in mercantile centers and in the colonial 
world, and much more — was an important cause of European progress. 
Then, as later, the European conception of its own dynamic society 
attributed dynamism not to external causes but to internal causes, and to 
God. This relatively constant blindness to the importance of colonialism, 


historically and even today, will claim our attention at various points in 
this book. 

The development of a conception of Outside proceeded in a more 
complicated way. The sixteenth-century Spanish debates about the 
nature of New World Indians — Are they human? Can they receive the 
True Religion and, if so, can they be made slaves? — was a crucial part of 
the early formulation of diffusionism, because it entailed an attempt to 
conceptualize European expansion and explain why it was, somehow, 
natural, desirable, and profitable, and to conceptualize the societies that 
were being conquered and exploited, explaining why it was, again, natural 
for them to succumb and to provide Europeans with labor, land, and 
products. 20 European views of New World peoples were formed rather 
quickly because in that region the basic pattern of colonialism emerged 
quickly. The enterprise was immensely profitable from the very 
beginning, from the first great shipments of gold in the early sixteenth 
century (see Chapter 4). Resistance was rapidly overcome in Spanish 
colonies and surviving Americans were rather quickly forced to submit to 
colonial exploitation. (I refer here to the major centers of early 
colonialism, such as central Mexico, the Greater Antilles, and the 
Andes.) In the next century the profitability of slave plantations in Brazil 
and the Antilles, and the fact that African slaves could, in spite of their 
resistance, be forced to work and produce profit for Europeans, added 
further to the conception of Outside: these people were naturally inferior 
to Europeans, naturally less brave, less freedom loving, less rational, and 
so on, and progress for them depended on acceptance of European 
domination, hence diffusion. In sum, the New World experience, with 
Native Americans, Africans, mestizos, and mulattos, in areas of mining, 
large-scale estate agriculture, commercial plantations, and so forth, 
produced the kernel of the diffusionist propositions (2, 4, and 5), which 
assert that non-Europe naturally depends on Europe for progress and this 
is due to a lack of the intellectual and spiritual qualities that Europeans 
possessed. It also produced the diffusionist proposition (6) that European 
expansion is natural and leads naturally to the transfer of wealth from 
non-Europe to Europe. 

But these activities were taking place only in the New World and the 
slave-trading coasts of Africa. The civilizations of Sudanic, southern, and 
eastern Africa were not conquered by Europeans until (in most cases) the 
nineteenth century; the Ottoman Empire was not only formidable 
throughout this period, but was indeed expanding its territorial control in 
southeastern Europe at the same time that Iberians were conquering the 
New World. And the other great empires did not begin to succumb to 
colonialism before the mid-eighteenth century: European activities in 


nearly all parts of Asia and Africa were mainly matters of trade, with 
dominance of long-distance maritime trade, small territorial footholds 
here and there on certain coasts, and the like (see Chapter 4). Thus, in 
the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the diffusionist 
model of Outside which had been applied to Americans and to the groups 
of Africans transported to America as slaves could not be applied to the 
civilizations of the Old World. 

For these Eastern Hemisphere civilizations a limited and somewhat 
tentative form of the diffusionist model was accepted during this period. 
These civilizations were indisputably rich and technically advanced. 
Rationality in the sense of inventiveness was clearly present, or at least 
had been present in the past, when the great and impressive innovations 
(technology, architecture, banking, and so on) had occurred. What these 
civilizations lacked was the moral component of rationality, because, 
fundamentally, they were not Christians. These were "Oriental despot- 
isms," societies in which there was, naturally, cruelty, lack of freedom, 
lack of a decent life for the common people (while the elite wallowed in 
decadence and sin), etc. (We discuss this concept at some length in 
Chapter 2.) The moral failing necessarily led to an inability of these 
societies to progress in the present, the era when Europe is naturally 
progressing, although Europeans could not deny, even though they found 
it most puzzling, that these despotic civilizations had, indisputably, 
progressed in the past. (At times the puzzle was resolved by declaring that 
they had progressed in pre-Christian times, and had lost the Grace of God 
through having refused to accept Christianity. 21 ) Only in the nineteenth 
century, with the rapid colonization of India, Southeast Asia, interior 
Africa, and (as a kind of collective colony) China, did the diffusionist 
propositions about Outside, and about the natural relations between 
Inside and Outside, become generalized to all of non-Europe. It was in this 
late period, I think, that the final diffusionist propositions the notion of 
counterdiffusion of evil and savagery and disease from Outside to Inside, 
become fully developed. The bogeyman (from the Malay Buginese 
people) came from Outside. So too did Dracula, whose homeland lay on 
the edge of Asia. 22 

Classical Diffusionism 

The nineteenth century was the classical era for colonialism, and the era 
when Eurocentric diffusionism assumed what I will call its classical form. 
After the Napoleonic Wars colonialism expanded and intensified with 
remarkable rapidity. Between 1810 and 1860 or thereabouts Europeans 
subdued most of Asia, settled most of North America, and began the 


penetration of Africa. Between 1860 and the start of World War I, the 
rest of Asia and Africa was occupied and the profits from colonialism, the 
value of capital accumulated in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, along 
with the riches flowing from newly settled areas of European settlement, 
expanded enormously. In the latter part of the century the rate of growth 
in colonial agricultural enterprise exceeded that of industrial develop- 
ment on a world scale, and other forms of development, such as the 
mining of nonprecious metals, were becoming important for the first 
time. 23 There is profound disagreement as to how important all of this was 
for European social and intellectual evolution in this period. I will enter 
this debate in Chapter 4, but for the present it is sufficient to assert that 
the overall effect of European expansion, through colonialism in the 
narrow sense, through settlement, and through semicolonial economic 
dominance, was profound enough to create a very large intellectual 
model, the classical form of diffusionism. 

By 1870 or thereabouts there was broad agreement among European 
thinkers about the basic nature and dynamics of the world. Few doubted 
that biological and social evolution — that is, progress — were fundamental 
truths, although evolutionary processes were more often explained in 
religious or metaphysical ways than in naturalistic ways, as in Darwin's 
theory. 24 It seemed clear that Europeans were naturally to experience 
permanent social evolution, that this had been God's or Nature's plan 
throughout history. Some historical thinkers described the general 
process in holistic terms, as the evolution of society or the state; others 
treated it in reductionist (in a sense, psychological) terms as an 
intellectual ascent, a matter of the steady advance of human reason, with 
capitalism, industry, and so on, treated as products of mind; but many 
thinkers (among them Herbert Spencer) saw no opposition between the 
social and intellectual models, treating progress as a kind of flowing 
stream, which carried with it an evolution both of society and of mind. 25 
All of this was explicit with regard to Europe and Europeans including of 
course Anglo-Americans. Thus by the 1870s at the latest the central 
diffusionist proposition, the notion of natural, continuous, internally 
generated progress in the European (or west European) core, was very 
firmly in place. Its truth was no longer really questioned by mainstream 

There was, at the same time, a convergence of views about the nature 
and historical dynamics of the non- European world. By the middle of the 
nineteenth century the biblical time scale had been rather definitively 
rejected (though not yet in all history textbooks), and it was no longer 
necessary to argue that differences between Europeans and all other 
cultures had to have evolved in the space of a few thousand years unless 


they had been there from the start, unless, that is, polygenists were right 
and some human groups had been created separately from, and perhaps 
much earlier than, Adam and Eve. This gave room for wide-ranging 
theorization about the way cultural differences had evolved. Paralleling 
this change was a general rejection of the literal biblical beliefs about the 
original nature of human society. Culture was now (after midcentury) 
quite generally seen as a product of evolution from very primitive 
beginnings, exemplified in the notion of a primordial "stone age." 
(According to the Old Testament, humans had possessed advanced 
technology, including agriculture and the use of metals, in the days of 

The reasons for the rapid crystallization of beliefs about non- 
Europeans are complex, but the most important underlying reason was the 
progress of colonialism. This produced two effects in particular. One was 
a flood of information about non-European people and places, such that, 
for the first time, a coherent — though highly distorted — description could 
be given in the European literature about non-Europeans, both civilized 
and "savage." The second reason was a practical, political and economic 
interest in proving certain things to be true, and other things untrue, 
about the extra-European world and its people. The two processes were 
tightly interconnected. 

Colonialism in its various forms, direct and indirect, was an 
immensely profitable business and considerable sums of money were 
invested in efforts to learn as much as possible about the people and 
resources of the regions to be conquered, dominated, and perhaps settled, 
and to learn as much as possible about the regions already conquered in 
order to facilitate the administration and economic exploitation of these 
regions. The nineteenth century was the age of scientific exploration — 
Darwin in the Beagle, Livingstone in Africa, Powell in the Rockies, and 
so on — but the sources of support for these efforts tended to be institutions 
with very practical interest in the regions being studied. Paralleling all of 
this was the great surge of missionary activity that supported some 
exploration (including Livingstone's) but most crucially led to the 
gathering of important, detailed, information about ethnography, 
languages, and geography by hundreds of dedicated missionaries through- 
out the non-European world. Also of great importance were the detailed 
reports that colonial administrators everywhere were required to submit, 
reports providing information about native legal systems, land tenure 
rules, production, and much more. 

Most of what was learned about non-Europeans came from these 
sources. It is not necessary for me to dwell on the fact that the people who 
supplied the information were Europeans with very definite points of 


view, cultural, political, and religious lenses that forced them to see 
"natives" in ways that were highly distorted. A missionary might have 
great love and respect for the people among whom he or she worked but 
could not be expected to believe that the culture and mind of these 
non-Christians was on a par with that of Christian Europeans. A colonial 
administrator not only had cultural distortions but usually worked with 
economic interests and classes (European planters, mining corporations, 
ZCLmindnrs, and so on) and consciously or unconsciously put forward views 
about common people, and about resources, that reflected the biases and 
concrete interests of these elite groups. Strictly speaking, missionaries and 
colonial administrators were in the business of diffusing Europe to 
non-Europe. Thus the entire corpus of information about non-Europeans 
that was gathered in this process has certain quite definite distortions. It 
was immensely valuable in spite of this fact, but the plain fact is that 
theories constructed from this information — and this includes the great 
bulk of nineteenth-century anthropological, geographic, and politi- 
coeconomic theories about non-Europeans — are systematically distorted. 
The distortions are, broadly, those of diffusionism. 

But colonial interest added an additional kind of distortion, a matter 
of shaping knowledge into theories that would prove useful for 
colonialism. Scientific and legal theories were constructed in general by 
policymakers and by intellectuals who were either themselves poli- 
cymakers or were close to policy. (In England, for instance, an 
extraordinary percentage of the influential historians, social theorists, 
even novelists and poets, had direct connections with the East India 
Company, the Colonial Office, and other private and public agencies of 
empire. 26 ) I include under the label "theory" a wide range of general 
arguments, including the larger constructs of history. 

At the most general level, intellectuals were shaping theories of 
social evolution which were in essence demonstrations that the postulates 
of diffusionism are natural law. As we noticed previously, the nineteenth- 
century debates between those called "evolutionists" and those called 
"diffusionists" were essentially debates between two versions of diffusion- 
ism. A great range of theories in both camps were constructs aimed to 
assist in colonial activity, and to develop and strengthen the doctrine that 
European colonialism is scientifically natural, a matter of the inevitable 
working out of social laws of human progress (development of the family, 
law, the state, etc.). Also at the very general level, seminal works of the 
middle and later nineteenth century on ancient and modern history 
presented various sophisticated diffusionist ideas, mainly about the 
reasons for and the facts of Europe's natural and persistent progress 
compared with other peoples, those now being colonized. These historical 


constructs were important in building support for colonial activities 
among European populations; and later, as colonial educational systems 
appeared, for convincing the natives that colonialism was natural, 
inevitable, and progressive. 

In Chapter 2 I will discuss a number of these diffusionist theories 
which emerged, or became concrete, in the nineteenth century in the 
complex association of scholarship and colonialism, focusing on those 
theories that today underlie the myth of Europe's historical and cultural 
superiority. Here I need only show how classical diffusionism arose in 
tandem with classical colonialism, and for this purpose a pair of 
representative theories can be singled out by way of illustration. 

One such theory was the postulate that non-Europeans have not 
developed concepts of private property in important material resources 
such as land. The theory asserted that private property emerged from 
ancient European roots, notably Roman land law and various putative 
Germanic traits relating to individualism; that other civilizations, lacking 
this history (and, by implication, lacking the mental and cultural qualities 
associated with this history), remained in a stage of evolution in which 
true individual ownership could not be fully conceptualized. These people, 
therefore, needed to have capitalism imposed on them. In fact, the theory 
was developed mainly by lawyers and administrators in the European 
colonial corporations and colonial offices, and had one very concrete 
purpose: to establish the legal basis for expropriating land from colonized 
peoples, on the fiction that the colonized had no property rights to this 
land because they had no concept of property rights in land. 27 Yet the 
theory became essentially an axiom in nineteenth-century intellectual 
thought. Even Karl Marx accepted it, and doing so produced a large theory 
about the evolution of private property — a major part of his theory about 
the origins of capitalism — in which it was argued (or rather assumed) that 
this evolution was peculiarly a European phenomenon, and that colonial- 
ism, for all its horrors, did at least bring about the diffusion of capitalism to 
the non-European world, a necessary though painful process for the 
non-Europeans. Thus even Marxism, perhaps the most antisystemic doc- 
trine to come out of nineteenth-century Europe, was strongly shaped by 
diffusionism. 28 

A larger form of this doctrine, the more general "myth of emptiness," 
the diffusionist idea that a colonized or colonizable territory was empty of 
population, or was populated only by wandering nomads, people with no 
fixed abode and therefore no claim to territory, or lacked people with a 
concept of political sovereignty or economic property, had similar coloni- 
alist functions, and arose in a similar way. The same is true of a closely 
related doctrine, the theory of "Oriental despotism" (older in point of 


origin, but developed fully in nineteenth-century diffusionist thought), 
according to which non-Europeans lack the concept of freedom, hence 
suffer despotic governments that stifle all progress — until Europeans bring 
freedom to them in the form of colonialism (which ironically is the purest 
negation of freedom). These and other theories that arose from classical 
diffusionism are still employed today to reinforce the myth of Europe's 
historical and cultural superiority; we will discuss them in Chapter 2, 
which seeks to refute this myth. 

The era of classical diffusionism was the era of classical colonialism, 
the era when European expansion was so swift and so profitable that 
European superiority seemed almost to be a law of nature. Diffusionism, in 
its essence, codified this apparent fact into a general theory about Euro- 
pean historical, cultural, and psychological superiority, non-European 
inferiority, and the inevitability and absolute righteousness of the process 
by which Europe and its traits diffused to non-Europe. Diffusionism then 
ramified the general theory into innumerable empirical beliefs in all the 
human sciences, in philosophy, in the arts. 29 And it applied these beliefs 
in particular cases, explaining and justifying the individual acts of con- 
quest, of repression, of exploitation. All of it was right, rational, and 

Modern Diffusionism 

The nineteenth century, or more precisely the interval between the 
defeat of Napoleon and the beginning of World War I, was a time of 
relative peace and relative progress for Europeans. Colonialism fueled this 
process with resources, markets, cheap labor, and lands for settlement by 
Europeans, and colonialism resolved many of Europe's internal contradic- 
tions in the process. The idea that progress in European civilization and 
expansion of that civilization in space were different dimensions of the 
same historical force was the dominant idea of the time, and this was, of 
course, the central notion of diffusionism. 

But all of this changed early in the twentieth century. The world is 
finite in size, so spatial expansion had to come to an end, and by 1900 all 
of the non-European world had been carved up into colonies, 
semi-colonial spheres of control, and territories of settlement. This 
change of conditions produced a change in thought: the essential problem 
now was exploitation and the maintenance of control in the face of 
native resistance. Thus it became a question not of expansion but of 
equilibrium. At the same time tensions among European powers — some 
of the tensions were connected to conflicts over colonies — boiled over 
into general war among the European powers. Soon after World War I 


came the Great Depression. Then, immediately, World War II. Between 
1914 and 1945, then, the minds of European intellectuals were focused 
not on the idea of progress and expansion, but on the question of how to 
prevent disaster: how to maintain, or return to, peace and prosperity. The 
code word was "normalcy." 

The central notion of diffusionism did not fit this intellectual mood. 
The prevailing doctrines of this period were theories of stasis, of 
equilibrium, not theories of expansion. Economics dwelled on Keynesian 
ideas of equilibrium. In geography, the doctrine known as "regionalism" 
prevailed, the idea that the various parts of the world are stable, coherent, 
well-demarcated regions and tend to remain that way. Anthropology was 
emphasizing two equilibrium theories: "functionalism," a model of social 
systems (and cultures) as stable and self-correcting systems, and "cultural 
relativism," a doctrine that declared in essence that each culture has 
intrinsic worth. Anthropologists of course worked primarily among 
colonized peoples, and these two theories were closely integrated with 
colonial policy, mainly as a basis for policies designed to prevent native 
unrest while allowing European exploitation of land, minerals, and 
labor. 30 Thus equilibrium doctrines were very widespread, probably 
dominant, in European thought throughout most of the first half of the 
twentieth century. 

Diffusionism, in this period, seems to have gone into a partial eclipse. 
History and geography textbooks were still sublimely diffusionist, in an 
essentially nineteenth-century mood, emphasizing the beneficial spread 
of civilization to Africa, Asia, and Latin America ("where our bananas 
come from"), the teleological rise of "the West," and so on. In social 
thought, the doctrines of "extreme diffusionism" (discussed earlier) were 
still being advanced, and still debated. 31 And it should not be thought 
that the decline of diffusionism as a doctrine of cultural dynamics implied 
a decline in prejudice. The notion that non-Europeans are less rational, 
less innovative, and so on, was as intense as ever: perhaps even more 
intense since this was the period of Nazism and like doctrines, and since 
genetic racism seemed, in this era, to be science, not prejudice. We return 
to this matter in Chapter 2. 

A new and modern form of diffusionism gained prominence after the 
end of World War II, in the period of collapsing colonial empires and an 
emerging "Third World" of underdeveloped but legally sovereign 
countries. This doctrine, generally known today by the title "moderniza- 
tion," or "the diffusion of modernization," arose in the late 1940s and the 
1950s. Immediately after the Japanese surrender in 1945 it became clear 
that a number of colonies would gain independence immediately: 
liberation forces were now very strong and, in the wake of the world war, 


all of the colonial powers except the United States were now quite weak. 
All of them wanted to hold on to their colonies, the sources of great profit 
in the past and presumably also in the future. Each of the colonial powers 
maneuvered in its own way to hold on to its colonies, sometimes resorting 
to forcible efforts to suppress independence movements, sometimes 
conceding political independence grudgingly but peacefully where 
continued colonial control seemed patently impossible. 32 

All colonies had been saturated during the classical colonial era with 
the ideological message that economic and social progress for the colonial 
people had to come through the diffusion of "modernization" from the 
colonizing power. "Modernization" meant the diffusion of a modern 
economy (with major corporations owned by the colonizer), a modem 
public administration (the colonial political structure), a modern techni- 
cal infrastructure (bridges, dams, and the like, built by the colonizer), and 
so on. I call this an ideological message, but it was in fact believed in 
profoundly by the colonizers, who felt that their mission was, indeed, to 
diffuse their own civilization to the peoples who were under their 
"colonial tutelage," and the fact that this mission produced wealth for 
their own country seemed only logical (recall diffusionist proposition 6). 
In the new situation the colonizers had to persuade the colonized that the 
"modernization" message was still valid. Doing so, they might convince 
the colonized to voluntarily relinquish the ideal of political independence 
in favor of the more pragmatic ideal of economic and social development 
under a wise and benevolent colonial rule. Or, if independence was 
insisted upon, this ideology would convince the people of the country 
now acquiring freedom that the only way to develop that country 
economically and socially was to retain the colonial economy, that is, to 
allow the colonizer's corporations and banks to continue their (profita- 
ble) work under the new regime: a system everyone today describes as 
"neocolonialism. " 

Now all colonial powers began a major campaign to intensify the 
process of colonial economic development. 33 This should not be thought 
of as cynical or hypocritical: remember that diffusionism defined the 
colonial process as beneficial for the colonized as well as the colonizer, and 
the technical and other personnel involved in the new colonial develop- 
ment activities were utterly convinced that they were working for the 
advancement of the colonized people. At the same time, a parallel 
campaign was developed to further the same form of economic develop- 
ment in the independent countries, partly through agencies of the United 
Nations, partly through bilateral aid agreements. 34 The United States, 
now the leading economic power, began to establish its own aid programs 
in countries throughout the underdeveloped world. Again, this should not 


be dismissed as cynical and political: there was, in this period, a tremen- 
dously euphoric ideology that saw the end of the world war as the 
beginning of an Age of Development, a time when the advanced nations 
would work to bring — that is, diffuse — prosperity and advancement to the 
poor nations. 

Decolonization spread, and many liberation movements and newly 
independent countries refused to accept the neocolonial option, either 
ejecting foreign corporations (as did Indonesia) or opting for a specifically 
socialist society. This added a new impetus to the diffusion-of-moderniza- 
tion project. Efforts to bring about development through diffusion were 
intensified in hopes that their success would lead countries to reject the 
anticapitalist and antiforeign options. But the choice of either of these two 
options seemed to imply a political alignment with the Soviet Union and 
China, so the diffusion-of-modernization project now became important 
as a matter of foreign policy in the Cold War. In 1959 the Cuban 
revolutionary victory gave the project very high priority for the United 
States, which now treated modernization and economic development, 
particularly in Latin America, as a matter of the highest priority, calling for 
very large investment. 35 

Modern diffusionism is the body of ideas which underlay, and still 
underlies, this new set of conditions in the Third World. The diffusion of 
modernization, as it is carried out by public policy makers and private 
corporations and theorized by intellectuals (at least in the metropolitan, 
formerly colonizing, countries), is considered to be essentially the process 
by which Third World countries gain prosperity by accepting the continu- 
ous and increasing diffusion of economic and technological plums from 
the formerly colonial countries, a process that now, as in the past, is 
supremely profitable for the latter. In the diffusionist belief system, it is 
profitable for everybody, and also is right, rational, and natural, just as it 
had been a century earlier. 

The ideas of 1993 are of course very different from the ideas of 1893, 
so it would be wrong to think that modern diffusionism is the same as 
classical diffusionism. Biological racism is no longer part of the model (as 
we will see in Chapter 2), and few modern European thinkers believe that 
non-Europeans simply do not have the potential to develop eventually to 
the level of Europeans. Religious undertones are largely absent, and the 
notion that a Christian god began things with the putative ancestors of 
Europeans, in the Bible Lands, and thereafter guided Europeans, Chris- 
tians, to persistent superiority over all others, is no longer very popular. 
The historical greatness of some non-European civilizations is now fully 
conceded. (But with one vital qualification: less rationality, less innova- 
tiveness, than European civilization. We deal with this in Chapter 2.) 


After about a quarter-century of blind faitb that the diffusion of moderni- 
zation would bring about economic development everywhere, European 
experts and scholars now qualify their belief in this model, and in 
particular draw back from their former naive faith that the diffusion of 
modern technology, particularly in agriculture, is the key to economic 
development, the key to what used to be called "the take-off into sustained 

But, all of this notwithstanding, the basic propositions of diffusionism 
remain in place. Europeans still believe that Inside has one fundamental 
cultural nature and Outside another, now admitting Japan into the Inside 
sector. It is still believed that Europe in the past displayed a progressiveness 
not found in any other civilizations, except in one or two places, at one or 
two moments of history. Although European scholars no longer insist that 
this fundamental difference between a progressive Inside and a stagnant or 
slow-moving Outside will persist into the indefinite future, most of them 
write and speak about the present and future as though this fundamental 
dynamic will continue (again qualifying the picture to admit Japan, and 
perhaps a few small East Asian societies, into the dynamic of Inside). But 
today, as we will see in the next chapter, there is a growing, though still 
small, group of European scholars, mainly responding to the newer ideas 
that now emanate from non-European scholarship in postcolonial socie- 
ties, who question the overall diffusionist model, and who deny its 
historical conceptions about the superiority of Inside over Outside. 


Diffusionism is a poor theory. Diffusionism, as I argue in this book, is not 
good geography and not good history. Yet it exerts a tremendous influence 
on scholarship, and has done so for a very long time. How do we account 
for the fact that a bad theory can be so widely believed to be true, and for 
such a long time? We should briefly consider this question before we shift 
from the discussion of the nature and evolution of diffusionism as a theory 
to the discussion of empirical history, the topic of later chapters. It is 
important to understand how this (and every) theory interlocks with 
other ideas and responds to social interests. 

The Ethnography of Beliefs 

In this discussion we will look at ideas as cultural facts: we will look at 
them ethnographically, as beliefs held by human beings who belong to 


specific sorts of communities and categories. We will see that a study of 
ideas-as-beliefs is quite different from an inquiry into the validity or truth 
of ideas, and that the study of ideas-as-beliefs is in some cases the more 
important and more basic of the two sorts of inquiry. We will see, in 
addition, that scientific beliefs arrange themselves in larger structures, 
belief systems, and that belief systems (like diffusionism) have certain 
crucial relationships of compatibility to one another and conformality to 
the values or interests of the groups of people who hold them to be valid. 
Pursuing this ethnographic exploration of the character of ideas-as-beliefs 
we will, I think, discover why the theory of diffusionism has had a life 
history that is more clearly explained by the life history of European 
society, and more particularly European colonialism, than it is by any 
intellectual or social process within the scientific community. 

Scientific ideas, and empirical ideas in general, can be examined in 
two ways. One is comfortable and traditional. It considers ideas in terms 
of their communicated meaning. Are they logical; that is, do they reflect 
an internally consistent argument? Are they valid in the sense that what 
they assert about the real world seems to have evidential support? This 
combination of logic, or structure of argument, and evidential basis is the 
kind of thing we look for whenever we evaluate scientific ideas — indeed 
all ideas that concern empirical reality. The second way of looking at 
ideas inquires about the people who believe a given idea, who 
communicate it to others as a belief, and about the people who listen and 
in turn accept the idea as a belief. The question whether a person believes 
in the validity of an idea is not at all the same as the question whether the 
idea is in fact a valid one. Questions about belief status are matters of 
ethnography: of finding out why beliefs are held by given people; how 
beliefs come to be accepted and rejected by these people; how given 
beliefs are connected in the minds of these people with other beliefs held 
by them; how new candidate beliefs are weighed and accepted or rejected; 
and how beliefs as such are connected to other parts of culture, including 
values, social organization, class organization, politics, and so on. What 
makes this kind of inquiry threatening is the fact that it can provide 
independent and reliable evidence that a given group of people holds a 
given idea to be true for reasons that have little to do with logic and 
evidence, for reasons grounded in culture. 

Interestingly, we experience no discomfort and sense no threat when 
we read an account written by some anthropologist or cultural geographer 
about the beliefs, values, myths, and so on, of some small and obscure 
society in some far corner of the earth. Indeed, we expect an 
anthropologist to tell us more about the social or cultural reason why the 
"natives" hold to these ideas than about the validity of the ideas. In this 


kind of context it is quite normal to have a description of ideas that 
distinguishes between the matter of their logical and evidential basis and 
the matter of their cultural binding. But when this ethnographic 
approach is applied to what are called "Western" ideas, in the realms of 
science, history, and the like, the results are disturbing and the enterprise 
itself seems somehow improper. 

Ideas are, so to speak, surrounded by culture, and we can examine the 
surroundings and the way ideas are embedded in their surroundings. This 
is the ethnographic study of ideas. Now it happens to be a terminological 
convention in the field of anthropology to attach the prefix ethno- to a 
word designating a particular field of knowledge, such as medicine, 
botany, geography, and the like, when our purpose is to study that body of 
knowledge ethnographically. The study of "medicine," for instance, is 
different from the study of "ethnomedicine." The latter is an ethno- 
graphic field, asking what the medical beliefs are in a given culture, how 
these beliefs relate to the rest of that culture, and how to generalize 
cross-culturally about medical beliefs in all (or some set) of cultures. 
When we put together along with ethnomedicine all the other scientific 
fields prefixed by "ethno-," we get, naturally enough, ethnoscience, 
meaning the ethnographic study of all sciences; more broadly, all fields of 
empirical belief. Ethnohistory is part of that corpus. 36 So, too, is 

The subject matter of ethnoscience is belief. Ordinarily we look at 
beliefs as they are enshrined in empirical statements, generally sentences 
that assert some predicate to be true about some subject. The 
fundamental, though not the smallest, unit of study in ethnoscience is the 
statement of belief and the person or group who makes — and holds 
to — this belief statement. For every empirical statement in social science 
there is an ethnoscientific question about its belief status and there is a 
profoundly different question about its truth status. The two questions do 
not forever remain separate, but they come together only at the 
conclusion of a long analysis. That analysis explains in the end why so 
many diffusionist statements in which historians and geographers firmly 
believe are really false. 

The study of beliefs is also the study of belief-holding groups. Two 
very important points have to be made about belief-holding groups. A 
belief-holding group can be a group of any type. However, among the 
various types of belief-holding groups, the most fundamentally important 
are cultures, classes, and combinations that can be thought of as 
ethnoclasses. None of these types is an abstraction, except in the matter 
of defining units and boundaries. Cultures are highly variable from place 


to place and person to person, but the analytical unit itself is real and 
concrete. Its individual members also have concrete reality. There is no 
philosophical conundrum about the cultural whole "versus" its individual 
(human) parts in the matters we are discussing now. Thus there is an 
ethnoscience of each individual human being and also an ethnoscience of 
groups as collectives. Classes are a bit more problematic. However, most 
people accept the broad idea that there is a basic division between two 
class communities, one, the working class, the other an elite class, 
deploying political power and generally accumulating wealth. I will 
simply take it as given here that a rough class bifurcation exists in most 
societies of this and the preceding century, while conceding that it is not 
always possible to tell whether a given group in a given society belongs to 
the working (producing) class or to the elite class or to some ambiguous 
or uncertain grouping that does not fit comfortably in either of the two. 
One such problematic grouping that relates closely to the issues discussed 
in this book includes professors and others engaged in studying and 
writing about society and the environment. They are not members of the 
accumulating class, the elite, but scholars and writers are in most cases 
(not all) strongly bound to that class, and for all their intellectual 
penetration, discipline, and honesty, they tend to think, say, and write 
down ideas that are useful to the elite. This is true most pointedly for ideas 
of the sort related to diffusionism. 

Culture and class intersect in ethnoclass communities. There is a 
crucial use in this book for the concept of an ethnoclass community. I will 
argue strongly that the elite groupings of European countries together, in 
spite of their cultural (and national) differences, are a basic and 
permanent belief-holding group, and that their beliefs form, to a large 
extent, a single ethnogeography and ethnoscience. This reflects the fact 
that, for the period with which we are mainly concerned, the nineteenth 
and twentieth centuries, these elites have had a common set of interests 
in relation to the working classes of their own countries and of the 
non-European world, and they have together underwritten the produc- 
tion of a coherent belief system about the European world, the 
non-European world, and the interactions between the two. The most 
important proposition in this book, in fact, is the assertion that 
diffusionist ideas are at the core of the single belief system generated 
under the influence of, and for the interests of, the European elite. 
Although it should not be thought that the science and history produced 
under the stimulus of this ethnoclass is "biased," nevertheless we will see 
that the entire body of ideas concerning geography, history, and social 
science are strongly influenced by their ethnoclass patronage. Overall, 


and through the two-century-long flow of ideas, the product is a body of 
diffusionist beliefs which persist, and continue to influence social 
practice, although they are quite unscientific. 

Beliefs assemble themselves into belief systems. The difference is not 
exactly a matter of relative complexity. Most simple beliefs are just those 
ideas that can be expressed in simple declarative sentences (although 
some call for a poem or a painting), and which people do express as 
assertions, with more or less confidence as to their veracity. We are 
interested in three things about these belief sentences and the acts in 
which they are expressed. They are empirical (not purely logical or purely 
evaluative). They are expressed as true, or possibly true. And they are 
thought of by the belief holders as cognitively whole or discriminable, as, 
putting it crudely, "concept," "ideas." What makes such a hard-to-be- 
precise-about unit important is the fact that individual humans do not 
simply think up such ideas or concepts out of thin air or immediate 
perceptual experience. These unit beliefs tend to retain their character as 
beliefs through long intervals of time, often generations, and among large 
numbers of people. Still more structure is to be found in a belief system 
that consists of chains of statements connected together by implication 
("because . . ."). This kind of belief system I will call, unoriginally, an 
argument. It simply needs to be noted that the chain of statements in an 
argument may or may not proceed from simple to complex. A tighter 
structure is to be found in those systems called theories. Simple beliefs, 
then, are aggregated in various ways into belief structures, belief systems. 
Each belief system, in turn, is assembled (psychologically) into various 
sorts of higher order systems. 

The highest level, comprehending all of the empirical beliefs held by 
a given belief-holding unit — including some beliefs that contradict one 
another — is the group's (or individual's) ethnoscience as a whole. 
Included here are all of the beliefs held to be true, or possibly true, about 
the external world, natural and social; beliefs about the self or person; and 
beliefs about technique — the self's capability to manipulate and influence 
the world. The ethnoscience, in a way, is an encyclopedia. 

How does it happen that a new belief is admitted into a belief 
system? The question is not where new ideas come from but how they 
become validated, that is, given a kind of social license that admits them 
to the status of a belief, a belief that is at least accepted as a tenable 
hypothesis, a "reasonable idea," and at most accepted as fact. Three quite 
distinct judgments — I think also distinct procedures — are involved in this 
licensing process. One is a judgment of compatibility. The second is a 
judgment of verifiability (the matter of empirical verification). The third 


is a judgment of conformality (or value conformality). Scholarly conceits 
to the contrary notwithstanding, verification is the least important of the 

All the belief systems held by a given group are in one way or another 
interrelated. Some are tightly connected: one theory may seem to follow 
directly from another, for example. Normally the relationship is much 
looser. But all belief systems have one basic and common relationship 
with all other belief systems held by a group. They are compatible. This 
means that they can coexist peacefully in the same ethnoscience: they are 
not cognitively or culturally dissonant. Although beliefs may occasionally 
contradict one another, total lack of relationship is not in principle 
possible: directly or indirectly, all beliefs held by a given belief-holding 
group (or individual) are somehow linked together, and some judgment of 
their compatibility will be made more or less often. Typically, belief 
systems reinforce one another: "If P is true, it is reasonable to suppose that 
Q is true." Or "If P is true, it follows necessarily that Q is true." What 
counts here, because this is an ethnographic scenario, is the fact that the 
belief systems are judged to be compatible. The judgment of compatibility 
is not simply a definition, an assertion to the effect that when the group 
holds two or more beliefs at the same time they are merely labeled 
"compatible." Compatibility is the outcome of an important social 
process. The process is most transparent when new candidate beliefs are 
introduced: when some new hypothesis is proposed within a belief- 
holding group and must, as it were, apply for a license. One of the most 
crucial tests it must pass is that of compatibility with existing beliefs. 

Compatibility is the loosest of all relations among theories and other 
beliefs within an ethnoscience. Compatibility is, in a sense, a bridge that 
must be built over gaps in the overall body of thought. One sort of gap is 
obvious: it is the incompleteness of knowledge. The other sort, less 
obvious, is highly significant for the argument of this book. Here, the gap 
among theories (and other beliefs) is actually filled, but not by argument. 
In ordinary language, "it seems reasonable" to suppose that one theory 
lends support to another, or one historical belief is explained by another. 
This matter of "reasonableness" bears very close examination, because 
"reasonableness" is that form of the relation of compatibility which allows 
the most absurdly unreasonable ideas to pass for well-founded scientific 

Broadly speaking, there are two important ways in which gaps are 
bridged with "reasonableness" in place of" — and disguising the lack of — an 
explicit, defensible argument. One way calls for an insertion of value 
statements in place of belief statements; we will explore this device in the 


next section. The other device lies within the belief system itself. It 
substitutes, for an explicit argument, an implicit one. To understand how 
it works we have to distinguish between explicit and implicit beliefs. 

Implicit beliefs are usually matters "too obvious to mention," 
"beneath notice," "obviously true," "taken for granted." They are 
ordinary beliefs (and theories) which tend not to surface in discourse. 
There is nothing mysterious about most implicit beliefs; they are not 
somehow buried in the unconscious, or deliberately hidden from view. 
Some beliefs simply tend to be more often thought about consciously and 
verbalized than others, for a variety of unsurprising reasons. Those readily 
verbalized are explicit beliefs, those not, are implicit beliefs. There is no 
hard line of demarcation in a case of this sort, involving informal 
communication of belief. 

But the demarcation is quite sharp in the case of formal, written and 
published, expositions of belief. The implicit beliefs are simply not 
written about. If they emerge in print at all, it is in the form of explicitly 
stated assumptions, or "axioms." Here, the conclusion that terminates an 
implicit argument is exposed to view, but not the argument itself. Rarely 
is there any attempt to deceive or obfuscate. The writer merely takes it for 
granted that the reader holds the same set of implicit beliefs and is willing 
to accept the "reasonableness" of unsupported assumptions. Both share 
the same ethnoscience and the same value system. 

Implicit beliefs, as we will see, are the weakest link in the diffusionist 
world model. Throughout this book we will encounter diffusionist 
theories that simply hang in the air, unsupported by argument and 
evidence. In fact we will find, for large chunks of the diffusionist world 
model, that most of the propositions which would be needed to make 
these areas of belief coherent and sound are simply missing. In other words, 
relatively few of the beliefs are explicit and grounded. And these few are 
not connected together, so the fabric as a whole is incomplete. It seems 
complete only to those who are prepared to take a great deal for granted, 
who fill in the gaps with implicit beliefs. 

Verification is the matter of testing a candidate belief to see whether 
it fits the facts. There are various kinds of test and various controversies 
about the nature of verification, but such questions need not detain us. 
The normal sort of verification involves a search for evidence that would 
seem to support or contradict the new hypothesis, the candidate belief. 
The process is never complete: everyone, of every culture and community, 
has to be satisfied with partial confirmation (and disconfirmation) of 
empirical beliefs. For us the important point about verification is this: 
verification is never sufficient grounds for converting a hypothesis into an 
accepted belief. Nor is it even necessary. 


The judgment of compatibility is more crucial than that of 
verifiability, and this holds true among social scientists as it does among 
all other groups of natives. Part of verification is itself a matter of judging 
compatibility. The words and procedures used in verification, the criteria 
on which a test is deemed adequate, and much more besides, are drawn 
from the stock of existing beliefs, and the test of a candidate belief is 
therefore only partly a matter of direct confrontation with new evidence. 
But this is not the main point. In any belief-holding group, a new idea, a 
candidate belief, tends to be judged more on the basis of the way it fits 
into the existing belief system than on the basis of its directly 
apprehended meaning. 

The same thing happens in self-conscious scholarship. It has long 
been a truism that existing scientific beliefs tend to be defended in the 
face of new hypotheses that question them, and the defense is often fierce, 
bitter, and dogmatic. (Whitehead once called scientists "the leading 
dogmatists. Advance in detail is admitted: fundamental novelty is 
barred." 37 ) The truism was popularized by Thomas Kuhn in a dramatic 
scenario that he called a theory of scientific revolutions: in essence, 
crucial scientific beliefs gain a position of suzereignty, their supporters 
gain positions of academic power, and so the beliefs become entrenched 
and hold sway for long periods of time, even after evidence against these 
beliefs has massively accumulated. Eventually there is a historic break: a 
"scientific revolution" which overthrows the existing ruling theory or 
paradigm and installs another one, which, in turn, holds sway for a period 
of time. 38 But Kuhn's frame of reference (in his Structure of Scientific 
Revolutions) was physical science, and we are told very little about the 
historic process by which beliefs gain, and retain, hegemony in social 
science, including history and cultural geography. In these fields the 
process is fundamentally different. For one thing, influential beliefs hold 
sway for reasons that reflect much more directly the interests of elite 
groups outside of the scholarly field itself, and the replacement of one 
theory by another reflects mainly these external interests, not a Kuhn-like 
intellectual revolution within the community of scholars itself. Secondly, 
in these fields it is much less easy to attack old theories with new 
evidence, in part because scientific methods here are usually very inexact 
and in part because the collecting of evidence itself is guided and 
sometimes determined by existing beliefs. Thus it is that large belief 
structures, like diffusionism, persist for generations, untroubled by 
"scientific revolutions." 

People have a tendency, sometimes slight, sometimes strong, to 
believe what they want to believe. Another way of putting this is to say 
that beliefs are influenced by values, or that cognition interacts with 


valuation to produce what Tolman elegantly called the "belief-value 
matrix." 39 The most straightforward (or at least modest) notion of 
"values" finds them to be judgments of preference, assertions of what is 
good and bad, right and wrong, liked and disliked, by individuals and 
groups. Values, like beliefs, are aggregated into systems. But value systems 
are very different from empirical belief systems. The latter, broadly put, 
assert things to be true (or untrue) about the world; the former assert 
things to be preferable (or not), hence they call for action upon the things 
uncovered by belief, and John Dewey was right in describing such 
assertions as "agendas. "4° Viewed in this way, the realm of value is not 
autonomous and opaque. It is mainly a transition zone between belief and 
practice. Values are interests. 

Values interact with beliefs in a belief-value matrix. A belief system 
and a value system tend to maintain some degree of consistency with each 
other during limited periods (except in times of very rapid social change). 
This somewhat regular relation between the two systems I will call 
conformality, and it works both ways. Statements do not ordinarily become 
validated beliefs if they do not conform to the values, and therefore the 
interests, of the group. But value judgments indicate preferences for future 
action, and a given judgment is likely to be rejected by a group, sooner or 
later, if the future action it calls for is flagrantly impractical: if the action 
clearly cannot succeed given the nature of the real world as depicted in 
the belief system. Obviously, matters are more complex than this and also 
less predictable. In any case, the dominant belief system for a group must 
in the long run conform to the value system, and when the two fall out of 
conformality, one or the other will be forced to change. Since values are 
the expression of concrete worldly interests, the belief system will tend, in 
ordinary times, to bend more readily to the value system, and to worldly 
interests, than vice versa. 

The judgment of value conformality is a crucial part of the binding 
of belief to culture. The notion that beliefs are culture-bound is of course 
a familiar one, but the idea that this proposition applies fully to the belief 
systems of scholars is not really accepted except in the most general and 
abstract way and therefore in a way that does not usually permit an 
analysis of the manner in which a particular scholar's values (or interests) 
affect his or her empirical statements. The stronger proposition, that all 
new ideas in social science are vetted for their conformality to values, and 
more precisely to the value system of the elite of the society — which is not 
necessarily the value system of the scholars themselves — and that this 
process of validation normally and frequently leads to the acceptance and 
persistence of really unscientific ideas, is hardly even considered, even 


though it is normal doctrine in ethnoscience (normal, at least, when 
applied to natives other than ourselves). 

But there is an even stronger proposition that I will defend in this 
book with concrete arguments and evidence: the proposition that our 
world'Scale models, and many of our specific theories and factual truisms, 
are accepted mainly — and in some cases only — because of their 
conformality to the values of the European elites; that this has been the 
case since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and is true today. 
Many of these demonstrably false beliefs are built into the world model of 
diffusionism, and this is so because diffusionism is the central intellectual 
doctrine that explains and rationalizes the actions and interests of 
European colonialism and neocolonialism. 

Conformality is really the crucial part of validation. This is not 
ordinarily a matter of the "establishment" suppressing free speech 
(although this happens quite frequently). The judgment of conformality 
is a complex binding process. At all times the dominant group (a class or 
ethnoclass) has a fairly definite set of concrete worldly interests. Some of 
these conflict with others, but all tend toward the maintenance of the 
elite group's power and position. Because of its power to reward, punish, 
and control, this group succeeds in convincing most people, including 
most scholars, that its interests are the interests of everyone. These 
interests are social, economic, and political agendas, and it is a simple 
transformation to insert the word "ought" and turn them into values. 
Viewed statically, the interests are always clear, and the values derived 
from them cohere into a dominant value system that more or less mirrors 
these interests. Hence we have at all times a kind of environment of 
values, surrounding and influencing the ongoing validation process in 

The way this influence is exerted is very complex in our society 
today, but it was quite simple and transparent in the last century, when 
the main lineaments of diffusionism and other beliefs related to 
colonialism were being sketched in. In those days, not only was it true, as 
Marx said, that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, but it was 
also true that almost nobody but the ruling class, and its subalterns, had 
the opportunity to render those ideas effective, in the form of publication, 
lecturing at influential schools and universities, and participating in 
policy formation and execution. Conformality, in those times and places, 
was accomplished largely through the social vetting process by which only 
those people who adhered to the dominant value system were in a good 
position to tender hypotheses as candidate beliefs. I do not believe that 
the process is altogether different today, but it would take us far afield to 


discuss it here at length. We can simply take note of the background of 
most professors (very few of whom are the offspring of poor or minority 
families), the reward structure in universities and consultantships, and 
other elements that jointly produce this result: few professional social 
scientists want to propose candidate beliefs which do not conform. This 
explains why, in spite of the most rigorous adherence to scientific method 
and scholarly canons, our theories remain, to a large degree, conformal. 

In sum, validation proceeds by subjecting any candidate belief to 
three tests: compatibility, verifiability, and value conformality. Of these 
three, perhaps only conformality is essential (and then only in relatively 
tranquil times). Verification can be waived on occasion, provided that 
the hypothesis is both conformal to interests and nicely compatible with 
existing beliefs, be they explicit theories or implicit beliefs emerging as 
stated or unstated assumptions. Strong verification is, in any case, pretty 
hard to come by in the social sciences (a methodological fact that is often 
mistaken for an epistemological verity). In these fields, a judgment of 
compatibility is always rendered — if not on the candidate belief then on 
the person who proposes it — and it is most unusual for a new hypothesis 
or theory to become accepted as a belief if it contradicts the corpus of 
accepted beliefs in its field. But it is always the case that society and its 
elite need to be supplied with answers to pressing problems confronting 
them. So there is an important countercurrent. New hypotheses that 
display a touch of the novel and hold some possibility of solving an 
already recognized problem are encouraged, indeed rewarded. They must 
be compatible but not completely so. 

There is simply no way that a scholar, once installed in the profession, 
can prevent conformal values from creeping into his or her work. This in 
spite of the fact that nearly all are honest, careful, and competent. The 
reason why my argument seems, incorrectly, to be an attack on scholarship 
is because the problem is almost always seen in connection with explicit 
beliefs, and with consciously held attitudes. The fields that study human 
society are a weak infusion of explicit theory within a body of belief that 
is largely implicit. Scientific method prevents us from accepting the 
arguments of an explicit theory merely because we want to do so. But the 
main grounding for each such theory is its compatibility with other beliefs 
in the system, expressed as a matter of "reasonableness." It is "reasonable" 
to accept certain assumptions (reflecting certain implicit beliefs) and not 
others. One theory seems "reasonable," or plausible, because it is 
compatible with another, accepted theory, although no explicit chain of 
connection exists: most links in the chain are buried in the realm of 
implicit belief. Finally, it seems "reasonable" to seek verification for a 
hypothesis with certain observations and not with others. 


It should be added that the disciplined work of social scientists usually 
prevents them from unwittingly validating a hypothesis on grounds of 
value conformality. The problem, and it is a severe one, is that, thinking 
that our explicit beliefs are not validated by value conformality, we let 
value conformality control our implicit beliefs. These then provide a 
bridge across gaps between explicit theories, rendering them compatible, 
or serve up the assumptions which provide the starting point for new 
explicit theories, formal and informal. Scientific and scholarly method 
demands rigor only for the explicit theories. 

Diffusionism as a Belief System 

The discussion thus far has been designed to lay the foundation for an 
understanding of three aspects of the diffusionist belief system: its struc- 
ture, its binding to certain groups in certain societies, and its evolution, 
this last aspect including the important questions of why diffusionism 
became prominent and why it has persisted. It would not be much of an 
oversimplification to say that diffusionism developed as the belief system 
appropriate to one powerful and permanent European interest: colonial- 
ism. From 1492 to the present the wealth drawn into Europe — meaning, as 
in all of this discussion, Greater Europe — from the non-European world 
has been a vital nutriment for the elite classes of Europe: for their 
maintenance of status within their societies, and for their progress. 
Whether this statement can be generalized to include all classes within 
European society, whether, that is, colonialism was an interest of the 
nonelite classes of Europe in most times and places, is a contentious issue 
which I do not need to address. I am merely asserting that ( 1 ) Europe's elite 
depended on colonialism; (2) Europe's elite was tremendously influential 
in the evolution of European ideas and more specifically European 
scholarship; and (3) Europe's elite held a permanent social interest in the 
creation and development of a conformal belief system, a body of thought 
that would rationalize, justify, and, most importantly, assist the colonial 
enterprise. As that enterprise evolved and changed, so too did the body of 
ideas constituting diffusionism. 

Most of this book is devoted to a delineation and critique of 
diffusionist beliefs, so I do not need to review the nature of the belief 
system here. Suffice it to say, the doctrine ranges over all scales of fact, 
from world geography and world history to ideas about the qualities of 
individual human beings, European and non-European, and descriptions 
and explanations of particular local events. The scope of the diffusionist 
belief structure encompasses a fair share of European ethnoscience. That 
is, a fair share of the licensed belief statements in European ethnoscience 


are used within the diffusionist belief structure, although they are also 
used in other structures. (Some examples to be discussed in Chapter 2 are: 
beliefs about demographic behavior, about intelligence, about the origins 
of civilization, about the fertility of tropical soils.) These statements range 
from modest assertions of evidential fact to complex and elaborate 
theories, both formal and informal. They enter the diffusionist canon 
through all of the licensing procedures for belief acceptance discussed 
above. Over time, all of them go through the screening process of 
conformality with the value or interest of colonialism, or go through the 
indirect screening process that accords them the status of being 
compatible with other beliefs which are themselves conformal. Over 
time, the belief system accretes new diffusionist beliefs and discards those 
that contradict the canon or that have lost their relevance in a changing 
world. Since colonialism, in various newer forms such as neocolonialism, 
remains an interest of the elite, and since implicit beliefs go unnoticed 
and uncriticized, the process of adding, subtracting, and modifying 
diffusionist beliefs continues in the present. Were this not the case, the 
multitude of beliefs about Eurocentric history which claim our attention 
in this book would long since have been discarded. 

Diffusionist beliefs at the space-time scale that embraces the whole 
world and the whole of history, tend to form a rather tightly structured 
theory, as we saw earlier in this chapter. The theory, in brief, describes the 
essential processes that take place in an "inner," essentially European, 
core sector of the world, describes those that take place in an "outer," 
essentially non-European sector, and describes the modes of interaction 
between the two sectors, the most important of which is the 
inner-to-outer diffusion of innovative ideas, people, and commodities. 

We can describe this world-scale space-time theory as the 
"diffusionist world model." It is the colonizer's model of the world. 

The obvious question arises: what would we conceive to be a 
nondiffusionist world model? This would be a world in which the 
processes at work in any one sector are expected also to be at work in the 
other sectors. In essence, this model is driven by a concept of equal 
capability of human beings — psychological unity — in all cultures and 
regions, and from this argument it demands that any spatial inequalities 
in matters relating to cultural evolution, and more specifically economic 
development, be explained. Stated differently: equality is the normal 
condition and inequalities need to be explained. Diffusionism, in 
contrast, expects basic inequality between the Inner and the Outer sectors 
of the world — and of humanity. The uniformitarian principle is not one 
of uniformity; it is the principle of human equality. 

At space-time scales smaller than the world, the diffusionist belief 


system is very diffuse, parts of it hanging together as formally elegant 
theories, parts of it floating around as compatible but weakly connected 
belief statements. It would take us far beyond the scope of this book to 
attempt a description of all of the parts, levels, and subsystems in the 
diffusionist model as a whole, ranging upward and downward from the 
world model to the level of particular space-time event descriptions. But 
we can make a start. 


1. In this book the word "Europe" refers to the continent of Europe and to 
regions dominated by European culture elsewhere, regions like the United States and 

2. This quick survey of 150 years or so of world history textbooks is, of course, 
very schematic and impressionistic. Some further comments may be of use. In 
textbooks of the first period, around 1850 (plus or minus a decade or so), the original 
home of Man is often stated to be the Garden of Eden, which is located by different 
textbook writers in different parts of western Asia. For instance: somewhere east of 
Canaan and near Mesopotamia (Robbins, The World Displayed in its History and 
Geography, 1832, p. 13); somewhere in the "healthful" mountains between the 
Caspian Sea and Kashmir or Tibet (Miiller, The History of the World to 1783, 1842, pp. 
27, 43-44); perhaps near the borders of the Mediterranean Sea (Tytler, Universal 
history, From the Creation to the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 1, 1844, p. 17); 
in the Vale of Kashmir (Willard, Universal History in Perspective, 1845, p. 34); 
somewhere between the Caucasus Mountains and the Himalayas (Keightley, Outlines 
of History, 1849); in the Himalayas (Weber, Outlines of Universal History, 1853, p. 6); 
in Armenia (Collier, Outlines of General History, 1868). There seems to be a kind of 
median location of Eden near the Caucasus Mountains, which was also, by no 
coincidence, the supposed place of origin of the "Caucasian race." Noah, of course, 
began postdeluvian history on Mt. Ararat, in Armenia (also roughly in the region of 
the Caucasus). Noah is supposed to have migrated then to Europe (Whelpley, A 
Compound of History, From the Earliest Times, vol. 1, 1844, p. 10), or Mesopotamia 
(Robbins, 1832, p. 20), or Palestine, or some other part of the Bible Lands. Noah's 
three sons are supposed, then, to have dispersed and to have founded the branches of 
mankind — the first great diffusion process. In most textbooks of this period history 
tends to move west; some textbooks present the Hegelian notion that history proceeds 
inexorably westward, following the sun, with the implication that the United States, 
farther west still, will replace Europe as the next center of world civilization. 

It was widely believed in this period that nonwhites were not truly and fully 
human. One version of this theory, the notion of "polygenesis," claimed that God had 
created true humans in the Garden of Eden and other races — or at least the "black 
race" — in other places and times. This theory questioned the standard interpretation 
of the Old Testament (that everyone is descended from Adam and Eve), so, not 
surprisingly, it was not stated as truth in the textbooks I consulted. (I have not, 
however, looked at textbooks used in the antebellum South, and the theory of 
polygenesis was most popular in slaveholding regions, as an ideological grounding for 
the treatment of blacks as things rather than people.) Yet polygenesis was important 


enough to be mentioned and then rejected — in favor of the view that all humans are 
descendants of Adam and Eve — in some textbooks, down to the end of the century 
(see, for example, Dew, A Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Institutions of the 
Ancient and Modem Nations, 1853; Fisher, Outlines of Universal History, 1885; Duruy 
and Grosvenor, A General History of the World, 1901). But polygenesis was not needed; 
the belief that nonwhites are inferior to whites is asserted in one way or another in all 
the textbooks I examined. The theory of "degeneration" served just as well as 
polygenesis. It was the notion that the descendants of Ham, and perhaps other biblical 
peoples, migrated away from the Bible Lands, eastward and southward, and 
degenerated from civilization toward savagery, or even lower, as they did so, because 
they had not accepted Christ, or because they migrated into inferior environments, or 
for some other reason. (See, for instance, Keightley, 1849, 5-6: "the savage is a 
degeneration from the civilized life," and Africans are near the apes.) Degeneration 
was asserted in some textbooks, but in most the simple fact of white superiority was 
stated and left unexplained. The history of the world is, in general, the history of the 
white race, or the Semitic and Aryan peoples (see below). For times later than the 
Roman era, non-Europe is scarcely discussed, except as a backdrop for discussions of 
the Crusades, the building of colonial empires, and the like. (See Harris, The Rise of 
Anthropological Theory, 1968, for an excellent discussion of polygenesis and 

Nearly all textbooks of the period around 1900 (give or take a few years) accepted 
the newer scientific theories about the age of the earth and the fact of biological 
evolution (though not the Darwinian theory of evolution). The biblical account of 
human history, however, was retained in many books, although fewer of them 
accepted the formerly standard Old Testament chronologies (for instance, that things 
began in 4004 B.C.). Books of this period tended to present the so-called "Aryan 
theory," a theory derived from philology but expanded into a theory of culture history. 
Earlier philologists had identified an "Aryan" or "Indo-European" language family, 
and also a "Semitic" family (which many authorities, including textbook writers, 
identified with Noah's sons Japheth and Shem, respectively). The white race consists 
of these two peoples. One branch of the Aryans supposedly migrated west into Europe 
(from the supposed "Aryan hearth," somewhere southwest or northwest of the 
Caucasus). These were progressive, energetic people, who founded European 
civilization mainly after they had acquired Christianity from the Semites, who 
invented the first barbaric civilizations and monotheism but then stagnated into a 
dreamy, decadent, unambitious culture and thereafter ceased to advance civilization. 
No other culture, apart from these two, had much to do with history. (According to 
Freeman, Genera! Sketch of History, 1872, p. 2, history "in the highest and truest sense 
is the history of the Aryan nations of Europe"; see also Collier, 1868; Swinton, 
Outlines of the World's History, 1874; Gilman, First Steps in General History, 1874; 
Anderson, New Manual of General History, 1882; Steele and Steele, A Brief History of 
Ancient, Medieval, and Modem Peoples, 1883; Fisher, 1896; Quackenbos, Illustrated 
School History of the World, 1 889; Thalheimer, Outline of General History for the Use of 
Schools, 1883; Sanderson, History of the Worldfrom the Earliest Time to the Year 1898; 
Duruy and Grosvenor, 1901. Ploetz and Tillinghast presented this theory in Epitome 
of Ancient, Medieval, and Modern History, first published in 1883, in its many editions 
down to 1925 when, in an edition edited by H. E. Barnes, the theory was finally 
eliminated.) See Bernal's Black Athena (1987, 1991) for an insightful discussion of the 
Aryan theory and related topics in the history of European thought. 

Because the Old Testament spoke of agriculture — Cain knew farming and 


Abraham herded domesticated animals — the history textbooks tended not to address 
the problem of where agriculture was invented until very late in the nineteenth 
century, the period when science was beginning to deal with this problem. Some 
scientists and some textbook writers then began to speculate that, just possibly, 
agriculture was as old in continental Europe as it was in western Asia and Egypt. 
(From the point of view of science, see Joly, Man Before Metals, 1897.) But the idea 
that agriculture originated in the Bible Lands remained dominant although now it 
was viewed (by most) as an invention, not an artifact of original creation. The 
ethnographic fact that some tribal peoples (for instance, in Australia) did not practice 
agriculture was commonly explained, in the textbooks of the earlier nineteenth 
century, in terms of the theory of degeneration: their ancestors had somehow lost the 
art. Later in the century it became more common to use the diffusionist conception 
that agriculture had been invented by west Asian or (conceivably) European peoples, 
then diffused outward over the rest of the world, and cultures that did not practice it 
in modern times simply had not yet acquired it, either because of their isolation or 
because they were too stupid to take it up. 

The Orient Express was a famous train that ran between western Europe and 
western Asia. Although various routes were used in different eras, the basic line ran 
from Constantinople (Istanbul) through Greece to northern Italy or Austria, then on 
to France, and (via Ostend) England. Most of the history textbooks write about world 
history as though it marched northwestward, rather like the westbound Orient 
Express, with stations (so to speak) in Athens, Rome, Paris, and London. (See 
Chapter 2 for further discussion of the Orient Express model.) 

3. In nineteenth-century world history textbooks, Turkey was given some 
attention because of its political involvement with European affairs. World 
geography, in contrast to world history, always covered the entire world, and 
textbooks as well as the great multivolume descriptive geographies (like Reclus's 
classic 19-volume Nouvelle Geographie Universelle, published between 1876 and 1894) 
gave considerable attention to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This should not 
mislead us, however. One of the primary functions of geography throughout this 
entire period was to teach European children what they needed to know about 
non-Europe in order to participate in their countries' imperial and commercial 
activities in these regions. See Hudson, "The New Geography and the New 
Imperialism: 1870-1918" (1977) and McKay, "Colonialism in the French Geograph- 
ical Movement" (1943), on the close relation between geography and colonial 

4. The character of this newer approach can be seen if we look at two 
well-known modem university-level texts, one written by W. H. McNeill of the 
University of Chicago (A World History, 3rd ed., 1979), the other by J. M. Roberts of 
Oxford University (The Hutchinson History of the World, 2d ed., 1987; published in the 
United States as The Penguin History of the World). For pre-Christian-era world 
history, more than three-quarters of the place-name mentions in both books are places 
in Europe and the Middle East (including North Africa); less than one-quarter of the 
place-name mentions are places in other parts of the world and only about 1% are in 
Africa. For the Christian era to A.D. 1491 there is significant divergence between the 
two books. In Roberts's text, European and Middle Eastern places constitute about 
85% of place-name mentions. In McNeill's text, European and Middle Eastern places 
constitute only 60% of the place names mentioned, a significant departure from the 
older tradition although still well out of proportion to this region's size in area and 
population. (Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 2% of mentions for the period 


A.D. 1-1491.) In both books, therefore, the region I have been calling "Greater 
Europe" has considerably lower salience for pre-1492 history than was typically the 
case in older world history textbooks. As to explanation, however, both books retain 
much of the traditional perspective. Roberts gives almost no causal role to the cultures 
and regions of the world other than Europe and the Middle East (including North 
Africa) for any period prior to 1492. McNeill gives considerable weight to East Asia 
and some to South Asia for certain historical periods, but almost all of the world 
history-making forces emanate from Europe, western Asia, and North Africa for the 
period before 1492. (An exception is the Black Death, which, according to McNeill, 
swept westward into these regions from farther Asia. On this matter, see also 
McNeill's Plagues and Peoples, 1976.) Examples of the Eurocentric explanations 
offered by both authors will be given in Chapter 2 of the present book. 

It is, however, insufficient to look only at those present-day textbooks that are 
clearly identified as "world history" textbooks. Quite frequently university courses 
covering the subject of world history use history textbooks that carry titles like "The 
History of Western Civilization." (See, for instance, Lerner, et al., Western 
Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture, 1988; Kagan, et al, The Western Heritage, 
1987; Chambers, et al., The Western Experience, 1987.) If such a textbook neglects the 
non- Western world, there can be no complaint that it is misleading: the title clearly 
specifies "West" not "World." But if the course is designated as "world history" and 
the textbook is designated as "Western history," then we have a problem. The worst 
scenario would be one in which world-history teaching continues to be Eurocentric 
history in disguise. I do not know of any research which tests the following 
hypotheses: (1) Given that, today, historians are sensitive to the need to avoid 
Eurocentric bias in the teaching of world history, do some of them simply change the 
title to "Western" so that Eurocentrism becomes, then, licit? And (2) is it possible 
that there is a trend away from the teaching of "World" history and toward "Western" 
(etc.) history and that this trend reflects a reaction (or adjustment) to present-day 
demands for nonethnocentrism and "fairness?" 

5. A school textbook is truly a key social document, a kind of modern stele. In 
the typical case, a book becomes accepted as a high school (or lower-level) textbook 
only after it has been reviewed very carefully by the publisher, school boards, and 
administrators, all of whom are intensely sensitive to the need to print acceptable 
doctrine; they are concerned to make it certain that children will read only those facts 
in their textbook which are considered to be acceptable as facts by the 
opinion-forming elite of the culture. The resulting textbook is, therefore, less an 
ordinary authored book than a vetted social statement of what is considered valid and 
acceptable for entry into the mind of the child. For this reason, research on textbooks 
(including college textbooks, in which the same process is at work, though more 
subtly) is, in fact, ethnographic research. It tells us about the belief system of the 
opinion-forming elite of the culture as a whole. Therefore, geography texts in the 
United States are really ethnogeography documents. Likewise, history texts are really 
ethnohistory documents. They are probably as useful as cultural artifacts as any old 
potsherd or inscription. See the final section of this chapter. 

6. This argument is given much weight by Eurocentric Marxists, since class 
struggle, for Marxists, is the central force in historical evolution. 

7. A form of political feudalism is sometimes conceded to have been developed 
earlier by the Chinese, but the great majority of European scholars, including most 
Marxists, believe that European feudalism was unique in representing a form of society 
that was a crucial, essential, stepping stone to modernity. See Chapter 3. 


8. See Samir Amin's Eurocentrism (1988) for an excellent discussion of this 
notion. The word "Eurocentrism" apparently was coined quite recently, to assemble 
"European ethnocentrism" into one word. However, I (like Amin) do not think of 
Eurocentrism as merely a species of ethnocentrism, as the following paragraphs will 
make clear. 

9. I use the word "community" to refer to any social unit, of any size. In this 
discussion, for the sake of simplicity, the "communities" will be thought of as villages 
distributed across a rural landscape. I neglect here the cases in which culture change 
results from the combination of an independent invention and a diffusion event. See 
my "Two Views of Diffusion" (1977) and "Diffusionism: A Uniformitarian Critique" 

10. See Jett, "Further Information on the Geography of the Blowgun and Its 
Implications for Transoceanic Contact" (1991); also see Carter, Man and the Land 
(1968), and Edmonson, "Neolithic Diffusion Rates" (1961). 

11. See, for instance, Eliot Smith, The Diffusion of Culture (1933), Perry, The 
Primordial Ocean (1935), and Taylor, Environment and Nation (1945). Eliot Smith 
flatly asserts that the ancient diffusion process radiating mainly from Egypt and 
Phoenicia "continued for many centuries to play upon the Pacific littoral of America, 
where it is responsible for . . . the remarkable Pre-Columbian civilizations" (quoted in 
Zwernemann, Culture History and African Anthropology, 1983, p. 15). 

12. On these matters, see Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968) and 
Steward, Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution (1955). 

13. See Koepping, Adolf Bastion and the Psychic Unity of Mankind (1983), 
Stocking Race, Culture, and Evolution (1968), and Harris, The Rise of Anthropological 
Theory (1968). 

14. Often the antidiffusionist camp was labeled the "cultural evolutionist" 
camp, and the debate as a whole was labeled "diffusionism versus evolutionism." But, 
as I argue here, evolutionists were to some extent diffusionists and diffusionists were 
to some extent evolutionists. Moreover, I want to use the term "cultural evolution" in 
this book in a much broader and much less controversial sense, as indicating merely 
the search for explanation in larger questions of historical and cultural change. A 
problem that is "historical" becomes a problem of "cultural evolution" when we ask, 
broadly, "why?" Some scholars, of course, are not comfortable with this usage of the 
phrase "cultural evolution." For some it carries baggage of economic determinism or 
environmental determinism or technological determinism, or it signifies the notion 
of an invariant sequence of cultural stages through which all human groups must 
pass — but I mean none of that. Most cultural geographers use the phrase "cultural 
evolution" just about as I use it here. 

15. Both forms are sometimes combined; for instance, in the nineteenth century 
northwestern Europe was considered (by northwestern Europeans) to be absolutely 
civilized, Africa absolutely uncivilized, and all other areas (of the Eastern 
Hemisphere) somewhere in between. These matters are discussed later in this book. 

16. Max Weber's notion of "European rationality" is discussed in Chapter 2. 

17. The varying conceptions of China, and also India, as semirational or 
intermittently rational or rational in some ways but not in others are discussed in 
Chapters 2 and 3. 

18. The "bogeyman" refers to the Buginese, a Malay people who fought fiercely 
against the Europeans and so were stigmatized in this way. The most famous fictional 
vampire, Count Dracula, came to England from Outside (a barbarous mountain 
region on the frontier of the Turkish empire). 


19. On the history of the idea of progress in European thought, see, for instance, 
G. H. Mead, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936), Toulmin and 
Goodfield, The Discovery of Time (1965), Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (1980), 
and Bowler, The Invention of Progress (1989). It is true that the idea of progress as the 
normal condition was doubted by some thinkers during the nineteenth century (and 
especially in opposition to the idea of biological evolution), but this was a minor and 
intermittent countercurrent. See Stocking, Race, Culture, and Evolution (1987) and 
Bowler, The Invention of Progress (1989). 

20. See Huddleston, Origins of the American Indians: European Concepts, 
1492-1729 (1967), Williams, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought (1990); 
Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797 (1992); 
Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America (1963). 

21. At times the notion was advanced that these civilizations had somehow 
evolved in antediluvian times and had not been wiped out in the Flood (see, for 
example, Keightley, Outlines of History, 1849). Haskel (Chronology and Universal 
History, 1848, p. 9) speculates that Noah migrated to China where he or his 
descendants founded the Chinese monarchy. "The early improvement and 
populousness of the east, seems to favor this idea." 

22. From the mid-nineteenth century or perhaps earlier, the literature on the 
occult, on ghosts and monsters, and the like, tended to focus on extra-European 
origins or homes or sources of the witches, monsters, demons, zombies, walking 
mummies, evil spells ("black magic"), artifacts with supernatural powers, and so on, 
all of which have a tendency to diffuse into Europe as a kind of counterdiffusion, an 
undertow beneath European expansionism. See Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British 
Literature and Imperialism (1988). 

23. See W. A. Lewis, ed., Tropical development, 1880-1913 (1970). 

24. See Bowler, The Invention of Progress (1989), Stocking, Victorian 
Anthropology (1987), Mandelbaum, History, Man and Reason (1971). 

25. Spencer, The Man Versus the State (1969). The complex interplay between 
individualistic and holistic theories of historical progress during the nineteenth 
century is discussed in G. H. Mead, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century 
(1936) and Mandelbaum, History, Man and Reason (1971). I try to show in Blaut, The 
National Question: Decolonizing the Theory of Nationalism (1987b) how most theories 
of nationality and national evolution emerge from one or the other of these 
intellectual streams, one essentially Kantian and psychologistic, the other essentially 
Romantic and Hegelian. 

26. Among them: Malthus, J. S. Mill, T. Macauley, and Thackeray. See 
Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (1987). 
Also see Williams, British Historians and the West Indies (1966) and Said, Orientalism 

27. See Thapar, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations (1978) and 
"Ideology and the Interpretation of Early Indian History" (1982), and B. Chandra, 
"Karl Marx, His Theories of Asian Societies, and Colonial Rule" (1981). We return 
to this issue in Chapter 2. 

28. See in particular Marx's article, "The British Rule in India" (1979). In later 
work, Marx and Engels adopted a much more negative opinion about colonialism, 
developing to some extent the idea of colonial underdevelopment: see Blaut, The 
National Question: Decolonizing the Theory of Nationalism (1987b) for a discussion. 

29. See Chapter 2. 

30. See Asad, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1975), and Temu and 
Swai, Historians and Africanist History (1981). 


31. Important examples are Eliot Smith The Diffusion of Culture (1933), Perry, 
The Primordial Ocean (1935), Schmidt, The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology 
(1939), Griffith Taylor, Environment and Nation (1945). See critiques in Radin, The 
Method and Theory of Ethnology (1965), Lowie, The History of Ethnological Theory 
(1937), and Harris The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968). 

32. Here I am of courserejecting the view, common among European scholars, 
that colonies were relinquished voluntarily. This view has been rejected almost 
universally by scholars in the formerly colonial world. It may conceivably have been 
true for a few small islands from which profits no longer flowed to the colonizing 
power, but even such cases are debatable. It is worth noting that the United States has 
not given independence to any of the colonies it held at the close of World War II; 
has not even formally conceded the right of full self-determination (including 
independence) to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Marianas, etc. The other 
colonial powers would presumably have taken the same position, had they had the 
power to do so in the face of colonial pro-independence forces; in such cases as the 
Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, Kenya, Angola, Mozambique, and so on, the 
colonizers tried to hold on to their possession by force of arms and failed. My view is 
set forth in Blaut, The National Question (1987b), chap. 4, and Blaut and Figueroa, 
Aspectos de la cuestion nacional en Puerto Rico (1988). 

33. Representative examples include "Operation Bootstrap" in Puerto Rico, the 
Colonial Development and Welfare programs in parts of the British Empire, the 
increased funding for colonial agriculture and health departments, the establishment 
of colonial universities, and so on. These programs, regardless of their underlying 
political purposes (often hidden from the technical personnel involved) were, overall, 
very impressive. 

34. Often this work was a direct continuation of colonial technical work, often 
with the same personnel, now "foreign advisor" or "United Nations expert" rather 
than "colonial technical officer." ; 

35. Thus the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, the elevated funding of 
technical and financial agencies of the Organization of American States, and the like. 

36. On ethnoscience, see, for example, Gonklin, "Lexicographical Treatment of 
Folk Taxonomies" (1969), Frake, "The Ethnographic Study of Cognitive Systems" 
(1969), Blaut, "Some Principles of Ethnogeography" (1978), and Spradley and 
McCurdy, Anthropology: A Cultural Perspective (1975). In my view, the categories 
"history" and "science" cannot be distinguished ontologically, although historiogra- 
phy is hardly an exact science. 

37. Whitehead, Science and Philosophy (1948), p. 129. 

38. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970). More relevant is Fleck's 
Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1979). 

39. Tolman, "A Psychological Model" (1951). 

40. Dewey, "The Logic of Judgements of Practice," in his Essays in Experimental 
logic (1916). 


The Myth of the 
European Miracle 

Most European historians believe in some 
form of the theory of "the European 
miracle." This is the argument that Europe 
forged ahead of all other civilizations far 
back in history — in prehistoric or ancient or medieval times — and that 
this internally generated historical superiority or priority explains world 
history and geography after 1492: the modernization of Europe, the rise of 
capitalism, the conquest of the world. Most historians do not see anything 
miraculous in this process, but the phrase "the European miracle" became 
in the 1980s a very popular label for the whole family of theories about 
the supposedly unique rise of Europe before 1492. The phrase acquired its 
new popularity mainly from a book by Eric L. Jones which appeared in 
1981, a book simply entitled The European Miracle. 1 

The historians do not agree among themselves on the question why 
the miracle occurred: why Europe forged ahead in this perhaps miraculous 
way. Is it because Europeans are genetically superior? are culturally 
superior? live in a superior environment? Is it because one special, 
wonderful thing happened in Europe, or happened to Europeans at a 
special moment in history, giving Europeans a decisive advantage over 
other societies? 

Nor do the historians agree about when the miracle occurred or 
began. Did it occur back in the prehistoric age in what some still call the 
"Aryan" or "Indo-European" culture? in the late-prehistoric "European 
'Iron Age'?" Did it begin with the Greeks? with the Romans? in the early 
Middle Ages? in the late Middle Ages? Did it happen continuously 
throughout history — a series of miracles — each pushing the Europeans 
farther and farther ahead of the rest of humanity? 



The historians debate these matters, the questions "why" and 
"when," but not the question "whether" — whether a miracle happened at 
all. Or, to be more precise, they do not even consider the possibility that 
the rise of Europe above other civilizations did not begin until 1492, that it 
resulted not from any European superiority of mind, culture, or environ- 
ment, but rather from the riches and spoils obtained in the conquest and 
colonial exploitation of America and, later, Africa and Asia. This possibil- 
ity is not debated at all, nor is it even discussed, although a very few 
historians (notably Janet Abu-Lughod, Samir Amin, Andre Gunder 
Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein) have come close to doing so in very 
recent years. 2 

My task in this chapter and in Chapter 3 ("Before 1492") is to show 
that Europeans indeed had no superiority over non-Europeans at any time 
prior to 1492: they were not more advanced, not more modern, not more 
progressive. Then in Chapter 4 ("After 1492") I will show how colonial 
riches brought about the rise of Europe and led to Europe's ultimate 
hegemony over the world, showing also that Europe's internal characteris- 
tics do not explain 1492 — do not, that is, explain the origins of colonial- 

There seem to be two basic ways to argue that the myth of the 
European miracle is wrong, that Europe did not surpass other world 
civilizations before 1492. The best way by far is to look at the facts of 
history, and demonstrate that the evolutionary processes that were going 
on in Europe during and before the Middle Ages were essentially like the 
processes taking place elsewhere in the world in terms of rate and direction 
of development. I will try to demonstrate precisely this in Chapter 3, 
which compares the medieval landscapes of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and 
shows how a transition from feudalism and toward capitalism was occur- 
ring in many parts of the Eastern Hemisphere just prior to 1492. 

But the myth of Europe's unique "rise," its "miracle," is so deeply 
embedded in European historical thought that an ordinary argument from 
the facts probably would not be persuasive. As we saw in Chapter 1, the 
dominant theory has been defended by generations of historians, with 
practically no dissenting argument; it is supported as well by many other 
ideas which are accepted as unquestioned truth in European culture; and 
it fits in with and supports the interests of European countries (and 
corporations) in their dealings with the non-European world. For these 
reasons, I have decided to use another kind of argument — to demonstrate 
the fallacies in the dominant theory — as a sort of ground-laying for the 
empirical argument. 

In the present chapter I will examine the most common arguments 
used by historians today to support the theory of the European miracle, and 


will try to show that they are unconvincing. This task is rendered 
somewhat complicated, for a small book like the present one, by the sheer 
number of different arguments currently in circulation and the number of 
historians who are writing books and articles on the subject of, and in 
support of, the theory of the European miracle. How, then, to proceed? I 
will advance by stages. First I will present a brief discussion of the ways in 
which historians have tended to argue the myth of the European miracle 
in recent decades, and I will show how a critical, revisionist point of view 
has begun to appear. Next I will lay out, in a kind of menu or classification 
or checklist, the most important arguments in support of this myth that are 
being put forward today, and I will try to show, for each argument in turn, 
how unconvincing it really is. In the third stage, I will summarize the 
empirical argument against the "miracle" position in two parts (the topics 
of Chapters 3 and 4, respectively): the evidence that Europe was not ahead 
of Africa and Asia (at a continental scale of attention) prior to 1492, and 
the evidence that colonialism after 1492 accounts for the selective rise of 


The idea that Europe was more advanced and more progressive than all 
other civilizations prior to 1492 was the central idea of classical Eurocen- 
tric diffusionism, as we saw in Chapter 1. Therefore we do not have to 
consider the origins of the European miracle theory: it is our inheritance 
from earlier times. However, after World War II the doctrine assumed a 
distinctly modern form. First of all, the racist arguments had been 
decisively rejected: no longer was it argued that non-Europeans are 
genetically inferior to Europeans and that it is this inferiority that explains 
why they lagged behind in history. Historians now generally accepted the 
idea that European historical advantages reflected facts and happenings of 
much earlier times. European superiority was a matter of prior arrival by 
Europeans at a stage of development that all other people could aspire to 
reach in the future: a matter, therefore, of priority, not innate superiority. 
Second, there was a rapid increase in historical scholarship concerning the 
non-European world after 1945, grounded in rather pragmatic political 
and economic interests, and emanating in part from government- and 
foundation-sponsored "foreign area studies programs," but this scholarship 
nonetheless added greatly to the knowledge available in Western coun- 
tries concerning non-Western history. The new knowledge was fairly 
quickly put to rather limited use: some of the wilder fables were discarded 
but the basic ideas about the non- Western world did not significantly 
change. Third, and most importantly, the postwar world came to embrace 


the crucial new theory of "modernization," the theory that the diffusion of 
European ideas, things, and influence would bring about the economic 
development of the non- Western world in the coming Age of Develop- 
ment. This theory had important effects on history writing. 

Modernization as History 

The theory of modernization addressed the present and the future but it 
was fundamentally historical. Its basic principle was the notion that 
whatever had led in the past to European superiority could now be 
diffused out into the non-European world and assist that world to more or 
less catch up. As we saw in the last chapter, this new doctrine went 
through two phases of development, the first in the post-World War II 
period of decolonization, the second — an intensification of the diffusion 
effort — after the rise of socialist countries in the Third World, and 
particularly after the Cuban revolutionary victory in 1959. 

A number of historical works appeared in the 1960s as part of this 
intellectual process. Their central purpose was to show that the European 
pattern of development, including most particularly the development of 
capitalism, had been somehow the one, the natural course of human 
progress, and many of these volumes quite explicitly drew the ideological 
conclusion that the proper, natural course of future development in the 
Third World would be to follow this natural European pattern (but not, of 
course, slavishly). The most influential of these works was Rostow's 1960 
volume, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Nori'Communist Manifesto. 
This book was a plain assertion that Europe's past formula for develop- 
ment, up to and including capitalism, was the only workable formula for 
non-Europe's future development. Rostow married world history to world 
development in a single diffusionist argument. 3 

But there was a problem. Precisely what had caused the unique rise of 
Europe? Now we must return for a moment to the classical diffusionist 
period. European historians of the prior century were unanimous (I think) 
in their acceptance of the fundamental idea that Europe has been 
naturally and uniquely progressive. For most of them the basic force 
underlying the process was unquestioned: some drew on their religious 
ia'vtY\, others Wut on. metap\vjs\c'a\ (\\k.e Re^eV's evolvvrvg, "spuAt"^, 
others appealed to a Smithian or Utilitarian idea of individual human 
activity and purpose, and still others invoked the natural environment, or 
demographic behavior, or class struggle, or something else, but I think it 
likely that all of them held a common conception of an underlying force 
of Progress, a basic directional force like the Solar Wind, in relation to 
which partial facts (economic, psychological, environmental, and so on) 


were epiphenomenal or merely symptomatic. After World War II, 
however, a profoundly different set of basic beliefs became the norm. Now 
the problem of explaining the rise of Europe was seen as a total problem. 
That is, all of the phenomenon, including its most fundamental 
dynamics, required explanation, or, stated differently, had to be put into 
an explicit model in which explicit variables or "factors" were identified. . 
There were, doubtless, many reasons for this new — or rather newly 
popular — approach, among them the maturation of the discipline of 
history itself, the loss of faith (in this age of chaos) in the idea of 
inevitable progress, the general secularization of European thought, and 
the development of social science disciplines.^ But whatever the overall 
explanation, what emerged was a set of historical models, some new, 
others (like Weberianism) refurbished, that explicitly tried to explain the 
"European miracle" in terms of specific causal factors. This was the 
signature of the modern form of diffusionist history. The effect of the 
modernization perspective was not, by any means, dominant in all of 
historical scholarship, but it was so in writings that sought to explain the 
larger transformations of European history, and particularly the problem 
of explaining the medieval changes that brought about the rise of 
capitalism and modernity — the "European miracle." 5 We will review 
many of these explanatory propositions later in the present chapter. 

The Critique 

The modernization approach was quickly challenged because it gave no 
real role to non-Europe, past and present, save as an essentially passive 
recipient of diffusions from Europe. For the period before 1492, it claimed 
that the significant evolutionary processes took place in Greater Europe. 
For the period from 1492 to World War II, it claimed that evolutionary 
processes continued to effloresce mainly in Europe and that colonialism 
brought the fruits of this progress to non-Europe. For the present and the 
future, progress for non-Europe (the Third World) would consist of the ■ 
continued spread of innovations, mainly through mechanisms basically 
inherited from the colonial era. These propositions were distinctly unpop- 
ular among intellectuals of the Third World, and the rapid development 
of Third World scholarship in this postcolonial period led rather quickly 
to the emergence of a critical, even rejectionist, body of thought, includ- 
ing a new historiography. 

The basic thinking went about as follows: For the precolonical era, it 
was necessary to resurrect one's own history and find out how it had 
contributed to the history of the world. (Colonialist history dismissed 
precolonial history for some colonies and distorted it for others. Therefore, 


as Amilcar Cabral said with deep irony, when the colonies gain their 
independence, they re-enter history. 6 ) For the colonial era, the belief that 
colonialism itself the was source of all progress was patently untrue and 
colonial history had to be rewritten to show how it had led to poverty 
rather than to progress. On a world scale, new models had to be developed 
to show that colonialism, far from diffusing modernization to non- 
European societies, had diffused a mixture of good and bad innovations, 
which, for much of the world, had been a process not of development but 
of underdevelopment. 7 This body of thought came to be known as 
"underdevelopment theory" in Africa and Asia and as "dependency 
theory" in Latin America. Out of it came the first serious critique of 
Eurocentric historiography. 

One can trace the origins of this critique to earlier writings by a small 
number of historians, most of them colonial subjects, often writing in 
exile. Their main theme was a documentation of the negative effects of 
colonialism on a particular place and people. Some of the writers — among 
them W. E. B. DuBois, R. Palme Dutt, K. M. Panikkar, M. N. Roy, J. C. 
Van Leur, C. L. R. James, George Padmore, and Eric Williams — developed 
arguments on colonial processes at a world scale, and on the role of 
colonialism in the postmedieval and modem rise of capitalism and Europe. 
James showed that Caribbean slaves had played a role in the development 
of capitalism not fundamentally different from that of the working class in 
Europe. Williams's work ultimately had the strongest impact on Eurocen- 
tric history. He showed that the wealth from slavery and the slave 
plantation had been the crucial factor in the amassing of capital for the 
Industrial Revolution in England. This argument was the first major 
demonstration that non-Europe had played a central role in moderniza- 
tion itself, and a sizeable literature has grown up among European 
historians arguing about, and generally trying to counter, what is now 
generally called "the Williams thesis." 8 During and after the period of 
decolonization this critical historical literature expanded greatly, and a 
large number of scholars began a direct attack on the diffusionist history of 
the colonial period. 

Much of this work will be discussed in later chapters. Here I want to 
make several concrete points about the critique. First of all, a number of 
historians from the European world (Bernal, Frank, Wallerstein, and 
others) joined Third World historians as central figures in the movement. 
Second, while the critique focused a good deal of attention on the 
pre- 1492 period, showing that development had taken place in non- 
Europe — for instance, Sharma and Habib documented the development 
of feudal and postfeudal society in medieval India — for a long time very 
little scholarly attention, within this critical tradition, was focused on 


pre- 1492 Europe; the first major work that dealt with this problematic — 
from a non-Eurocentric point of view, that is — was Amin's 1974 volume 
Accumulation on a World Scale. 9 This is perhaps understandable since most 
of the critical historians were themselves from the Third World, not from 
Europe, and European history was not often a major interest. Yet it was 
anomalous nonetheless. The core of the modernization doctrine in history 
was, after all, the argument that Europe had begun to modernize before 
other regions and before it established colonial control of other regions. 
Thus, to refute the basic thesis one would have to show (as I try to now in 
this book) that pre- 1492 Europe was not uniquely progressive. Of course,, 
part of this argument consists of demonstrations that other regions were 
progressive. But part of it must consist of refutations of the various 
"miracle" propositions, those that claim to find in ancient or medieval 
Europe some special quality of progressiveness. 

There is another, quite curious anomaly in the relative lack of 
attention to pre- 1492 Europe by historians in this critical tradition, the 
tradition associated with underdevelopment or dependency theory and 
the critique of colonialism. This has to do with the curious relation 
between Third World scholarship, much of which is Marxist, and the 
Marxist scholarship of the European world. European Marxists were 
among the main critics of colonialism and among the main contributors to 
dependency-underdevelopment theory. Marxist theory also inherited 
from former times a strong anticolonial flavor and a profound skepticism 
regarding the theories propounded by nineteenth-century mainstream 
European historians. 10 Yet, oddly, most European Marxist historians 
writing about pre-1492 Europe have tended to argue in favor of the 
uniqueness-of-Europe doctrine. 

Mainstream European historians have also contributed to the critique 
of the central Eurocentric doctrine. This is not an anomaly. Scholars try to 
pursue the truth and accept it whether or not it accords with their 
ideological or cultural preferences. To some extent they succeed. Thus a 
number of European scholars specializing in non-Europe have uncovered 
some of the most important evidence against the Eurocentric model of 
pre-1492 world history. The work of the Dutch historian J. C. Van Leur in 
the 1930s, concerning the economic history of South and Southeast Asia 
is a classic example of this antisystemic scholarship. 11 Another example 
relates to Chinese history. Half a century ago Duyvendak uncovered truly 
crucial facts about China's long-range voyaging in medieval times. Later, 
Needham and his associates produced a series of studies about the history 
of Chinese science and technology that had a profound impact on the 
Eurocentric model and (as we will see) forced Eurocentric historians to 
abandon a large piece of their argument concerning the supposed unique- 


ness of medieval European technology. Other Western scholars, like 
Wheatley and Elvin, delving into the empirical history of China with 
indifference to ideological questions, have produced other sorts of evi- 
dence about China's progressiveness in ancient and medieval times. 12 All 
of this damages the miracle theory, although, as we will see later in this 
chapter, Eurocentric historians have found ways to repair most of the 

The critique of Eurocentric history is a very large subject, and our 
concern in this volume is with just one part of it: the critique of European 
miracle theories about the world before 1492, and related theories which 
treat early modern world history as though non- Europe, and colonialism, 
were merely marginal to evolutionary processes. On these issues the 
critique has not progressed very far. I will give a few examples of important 
recent contributions, and others will be cited throughout this book. Janet 
Abu-Lughod's recent (1989) book, Before European Hegemony: The World 
System A.D. 1250-1350, is a seminal study that demonstrates (I think 
conclusively) that Europe was not more progressive and not more ad- 
vanced than other civilizations in A.D. 1350. Having made this demonstra- 
tion, she offers only a tentative and partial explanation for the selective 
rise of Europe, and decline of the Orient, after 1350. She suggests that the 
divergence took place in the period between 1350 and 1492. (I argue in 
this book that the divergence occured only after 1492, with the beginnings 
of massive accumulation in the Western Hemisphere, a windfall that did 
not accrue to non-European civilizations of the Eastern Hemisphere, and 
so gave Europeans their first and decisive advantage over these other 
civilizations. See Chapter 4 below.) Samir Amin has argued in various 
recent works that Europe was not more advanced than Africa and Asia at 
the end of the Middle Ages, but rather was more unstable: because of its 
marginal location at the edge of the hemispheric zone of civilization, 
medieval class society was less fully seated, less stable, less indurated in 
Europe than elsewhere, and so Europe changed toward capitalism more 
readily. 13 This argument, although it does not grant any "miracle" to 
pre-1492 Europe, nonetheless allows one of the old beliefs to stand: that 
Europe was more dynamic than non-Europe during the Middle Ages. 
Martin Bernal's new book Black Athena appears to have little connection 
to the subject of the present volume, yet his arguments are very closely 
connected indeed. Bernal shows that European historians have created a 
myth about ancient Europe according to which African and Asian origins 
and innovations are written out of history: the goddess Athena was 
African. Bernal's work undercuts the still very popular theories about 
ancient Europe's supposed uniqueness, and also exposes the ethnocentric 
and ideological roots of much of the European scholarship that underlies 


the classical diffusionist model. 14 Edward Said's 1979 volume, Orientalism, 
a seminal critique of this process by which Eurocentrism and conservative 
ideology has dominated European scholarly writing about the Near East 
and Asia, is also important and quite relevant to our argument here. Other 
such works will be referred to as we proceed. 15 

The Countercritique 

In recent years there has been an outpouring of writings that strongly 
defend the traditional Eurocentric view, upholding the European miracle 
theory in some of its various forms: we discuss many of these writings in 
this chapter. In the same stream of writings there are counterattacks 
against the more specific theories that question the traditional European ' 
views about slavery, colonialism, and the like (see Chapter 4), views that 
treat these processes and events as marginal in social evolution. And new 
theories (or modified forms of old theories) about the precise reason for 
the uniqueness of Europe are being put forward and discussed. I have a 
hunch that this is a scholarly movement that resonates with the new 
political attitudes concerning the Third World. In any event, the decade •] 
of the 1980s saw a number of writings of this sort and they appear to \ 
embody a rather conscious counterattack against the critical history 
discussed above. 16 

Some of the writers in this new literature are very self-consciously j 
engaged in such a counterattack. A number of them are Marxists and are 
insisting that the true, the original, the correct Marxist doctrine recognizes 
the priority, past and present, of Europe. Robert Brenner, for example, 
boldly argues that capitalism was invented by northwestern Europeans, 
with no help from others, and therefore (600 years later) we must 
acknowledge the continued priority of Europe. A number of other 
Marxists, like Perry Anderson and Bill Warren, argue similar positions. 17 
Among mainstream historians the . most dramatic event was the , 
appearance in 1981 of Eric L. Jones's The European Miracle. This book is 
a remarkable recital of a goodly share of the colonial-era ideas about the ';. 
precocity of Europe and the backwardness and irrationality of non- l j 
Europe. More remarkable still is the positive reception this book has 
received among many scholars, as though most of these old doctrines had 
not long since been disproved. 

Another movement at present is an attempt to find qualities present 
in ancient and medieval European culture, and absent in other cultures, 
which were the reasons for European development: qualities in the 
European family, the European political system, the European mind, and $ 
so forth. This movement is actively resurrecting the turn-of-the-century 


views of Max Weber about Europe's supposed "rationality" and the like; 
indeed, most (not all) of these scholars can be thought of as Weberians 
and many of them define themselves in that way. I will discuss Weber's 
views later in this chapter, along with the views of some modern 
Weberian scholars, among them Michael Mann and John A. Hall. 

In the next section of this chapter I will try to extract the most 
important of these newer views proclaiming Europe's pre- 1492 "miracle," 
and I will try to show that these views are mistaken. 


The myth of the European miracle is the doctrine that the rise of Europe 
resulted, essentially, from historical forces generated within Europe itself; 
that Europe's rise above other civilizations, in terms of level of 
: development or rate of development or both, began before the dawn of 
the modern era, before 1492; that the post- 1492 modernization of Europe 
came about essentially because of the working out of these older internal 
forces, not because of the inflowing of wealth and innovations from 
non-Europe; and that the post- 1492 history of the non-European 
(colonial) world was essentially an outflowing of modernization from 
Europe. The core of the myth is the set of arguments about ancient and 
medieval Europe that allow the claim to be made, as truth, that Europe in 
1492 was more modernized, or was modernizing more rapidly, than the 
rest of the world. 

This is a myth in the classical sense of the word: a story about the rise 
of a culture that is believed widely by the members of that culture. It is 
I also a myth in the sense of the word that implies something not true. In 
the following discussion I will unravel the fabric of this myth and show 
that the strands of belief that compose it are very feeble. 18 

The number of distinguishable belief statements that make up this 
myth are, I am sure, uncountable. One of the many reasons the myth is so 
durable is the fact that the basic generalization, the doctrine of the 
miracle, is supported by such a great variety of individual beliefs that 
historians of a given era can disprove some subset of these beliefs and yet 
the supporters of the myth can merely shift to other beliefs as grounding 
for the myth. 

A more fundamental problem has to do with the way beliefs are 
licensed. Beliefs tend to gain acceptance if they support the myth, and are 
either rejected or denied attention if they do not do so. One part of this 
problem of belief licensing (and relicensing, delicensing, etc.) poses a 
particularly, perhaps uniquely, serious difficulty for efforts to critique the 


miracle theory. Many of the beliefs that support this theory are implicit, not 
explicit; that is, they do not enter into the scholarly discourse of historians, 
and sometimes they do not enter even into conscious discourse in general. 
(Recall the discussion of implicit beliefs in Chapter 1.) Many of these 
beliefs we learn as children. Others seem self-evidently "reasonable" 
because they accord with deep values of the culture, or with other, 
accepted beliefs (historical, practical, religious, and so on). Thus, the 
conviction that ancient and medieval Europe was more progressive than 
other civilizations is supported by explicit beliefs, but these lie in a matrix 
of implicit beliefs — unquestioned and usually unnoticed — about the pro- 
gressive Europeans who "were our ancestors." By contrast, the matrix of 
implicit beliefs about historical non-Europe includes ideas of alienness, 
savagery, cruelty, cannibalism, deceitfulness, stupidity, cupidity, immod- 
esty, dirtiness, disease, and so on — a matrix firmly supporting the general 
belief that non-Europe cannot have been progressive. Examples of these 
sorts of implicit beliefs, both positive and negative, will appear as we 

One kind of explicit belief about European superiority will not be 
discussed here in detail. This is the openly religious statement, grounded in 
faith, that a Christian god will naturally raise His people higher than all 
others. Although we will refer to this view in various contexts, it is not the 
kind of argument that can be analyzed or criticized, because it is grounded 
in a faith that cannot be tested empirically; some believe it to be true and 
others do not, and that is as far as the matter can be taken. Suffice it to say 
at this point: the religious argument was so nearly universally accepted 
down to the nineteenth century that other arguments were not seen as 
necessary to many European intellectuals. Why, indeed, ask for the reasons 
that Christian Europeans are superior when we know that unbelievers will 
not go to heaven and, in this world, will not enjoy the grace of God? 
Unbelievers will naturally be rendered less intelligent, less fortunate, and 
so on. So long as scholars and educated people believed that religion 
underlies all things, including science, and that God intervenes to control 
human affairs, then it could simply be assumed that Europeans were 
superior because that was God's will. It is what you would expect a 
Christian god to do for Christians, particularly for those Christians who 
worship Him in the right way. By the middle of the nineteenth century, 
when Eurocentric diffusionism was at its height, when Europeans hardly 
ever doubted their superiority over everyone else, although the explicitly 
religious arguments were disappearing from scholarly discourse, they were 
still there implicitly, as implicit beliefs. I rather suspect that the great 
majority of arguments for the superiority of Europeans were finally 
grounded in a religious faith: if the European environment is superior, that 


is because God made it so; if the white race is superior, that is because God 
made it so; if Europeans are more rational than everyone else and this has 
no explicit explanation, one can infer that it is the work of God; and so on. 
I do not know to what extent this kind of implicit appeal to the Deity is 
still present but unnoticed in the thinking of contemporary Eurocentric 
scholars, but I am certain that it quite often is so. We will from time to time 
discuss the ideas of scholars (like Lynn White, Jr. and K. E Werner) who 
explicitly connect their views about history with their religious beliefs; in 
such thinkers the directionality of the causal arguments will be noted but 
not in any sense condemned. Sometimes a scholar makes such arguments 
unconsciously and implicitly. The only really disturbing cases are those 
that exhibit conscious hypocrisy. 


Basically two sorts of argument have been used to explain the uniqueness, 
the superiority, of Europe and Europeans. One sort appeals to some 
noncultural force or factor as prime cause; the other finds the prime cause 
within culture itself. Setting aside the doctrine of divine intervention 
(which one would generally think of as a cause external to human culture, 
although the point is theologically rather complicated), two kinds of 
noncultural, external causation are common. One appeals to human 
biology, the other to the natural environment. 


Biological arguments assert, in general, that Europeans are superior, 
biologically, to non-Europeans. The classical and typical form of this 
argument was biological racism, the idea that Europeans had superior 
heredity, and so were born with abilities greater than those displayed by 
non-Europeans. Europeans were brighter, better, and bolder than non- 
Europeans because of their heredity. Generally the descriptive category 
used was not "Europeans" but rather "members of the white race," but the 
distinction was not usually very important. Non-Europeans who were 
classified as members of the white (so-called) race were nonetheless 
believed to be inferior because they belonged to inferior subraces. 
Sometimes Europeans themselves were divided into superior and inferior 
subraces. Early in the nineteenth century it was widely, though not 
dominantly, believed that white people were not even of the same 
biological species as people of other races. This theory, "polygenesis," 
claimed to have both biblical and scientific support. 19 Its primary 


importance was its use as a rationalization for slavery: if Africans were not 
truly human, why, enslaving them could not be an evil act. This theory 
melted away during the course of the nineteenth century, mainly because 
it was offensive to liberal, modern, antislavery thought; what replaced it, 
however, was not much of an improvement. This was the doctrine we call 
classical racism, the belief that different human races have different 
endowments, just as different breeds of domestic animals have such 
differences — differences of intelligence, aggressiveness, courage, and the 
rest — and these different endowments are matters of biological inheri- 
tance. It was then argued, for instance, that Africans were endowed with . 
lower intelligence than Europeans, so it was both natural and moral for 
Europeans to colonize Africa and make all decisions on behalf of the 
Africans who, themselves, either did not have the innate ability to make 
these decisions, to govern themselves, or were just sufficiently less 
intelligent than the Europeans that a period of European control and 
tutelage was necessary while these slow-thinking Africans learned how to 
govern themselves. Racism, in a word, had as its main function the 
justification of colonialism and all other forms of oppression visited upon 
non-Europeans, including minority peoples in countries such as the 
United States. 

Toward the end of the nineteenth century racism acquired a 
pseudoscientific aura of apparent truth. Scientists claimed to have proof 
of the differences among races, particularly as to intelligence. Now, also, 
they were armed with Mendelian genetics, so it seemed eminently, 
reasonable for scientists who were, themselves, racists, now to assert that 
they had proof of the truth of the racist theories in which they already 
believed. These so-called proofs were unmasked as pseudoscience in a 
slow process that continued down to World War II: indeed, even today 
there are more than a few so-called "scientific racists." What we need to 
notice about scientific racism is that it merely provided a new way of 
justifying something that was already almost universally believed to be 
true among Europeans. This meant, on the one hand, that it did not do 
much to intensify racism — which was in fact reaching a crescendo of 
intellectual and scholarly importance around the turn of the century for 
social reasons, having to do mainly with the growing importance of 
colonialism — and, on the other hand, that the disproving of scientific 
racism did not have much to do with the decline of racism's popularity in 
the present century. Racism emerged from prescientific roots and survived 
so long as it was useful, science or no science. 

This is not to deny that scientific racism gave strong impetus to racist; 
beliefs in society; in a time when science was acquiring great prestige and 


influence, scientific arguments were indeed important. 20 And scientific 
racism helped in some special ways. One important example here has to 
do with supposed differences in endowment among the supposed subraces 
within the so-called white race. Anti-Semitism, along with anti-Muslim 
attitudes relating to colonialism in the Middle East, led to a prolif- 
eration of theories about the inferiority of the so-called "Semitic" 
subrace. ("Semite," of course, should refer only to someone who speaks 
. a Semitic language, such as Hebrew or Arabic.) This racist underpinning 
for anti-Semitism, then, became extremely useful for the general 
argument about the superiority of Europeans in history over all 
non-Europeans. 21 Semitic peoples were acknowledged to belong to the 
' white race. Now it could be argued that only Europeans belonged to the 
really superior subrace of whites. Semites were inferior. So were the 
non-Semitic peoples of western Asia (Persians, Turks, and so forth). 
: Indeed, in certain situations it was even argued that scientific racism 
- proved the inferiority of southern and eastern Europeans: the northern, 
. British and Germanic stock was truly superior to Italians, Slavs, and the 
' rest. One famous instance of this sort of argument was the series of 
} pseudoscientific testimonials given before the U.S. Congress at the time 
it was debating the first important immigration legislation in the 1920s. 
Scientists solemnly assured the Congress that southern Europeans were 
inferior people, and so should be excluded from free immigration to the 
United States in order to maintain the high racial quality of American 
stock. 22 

Today very few educated Europeans believe that there are genetic, 
■ inherited differences among the races as to intelligence or any other 
quality that might favor or inhibit social progress. Although a few people 
believe in the doctrine of classical racism, most of them are careful to keep 
their views to themselves, because today the doctrine is so thoroughly 
rejected, and viewed with such repugnance. If this were a book dealing 
with the history of ideas, we could go into the explanation for this 
j transformation — the decline and fall of classical racism over a period of 
no more than two scholarly generations. During the 1920s the belief in 
the influence, major or minor, of inherited or racial differences was very 
widespread. After 1945 the theory was very rarely defended. Probably the 
key factor was Nazism. The Nazis grounded their ideology in this belief, 
claiming that the so-called Nordics were a Master Race, that inferior 
kinds of Europeans, inferior (so-called) subraces of whites — like the 
so-called Semitic race — and all other races as a whole deserved to be ruled 
by the Master Race. The Master Race, moreover, had the right to 
I eliminate inferior subraces by genocide. Racism therefore was seen, and 


still is seen, as a component of the horrible ideology of Nazism. It is true 
that a small and fanatic group still preaches classical racism, and that a 
very small number of academics still proclaim its validity. The need to 
fight against the doctrine has not entirely ended. But this no longer is the 
important issue when we talk about Eurocentric prejudices, because 
another doctrine has largely replaced classical racism and performs much 
the same function, rooting its argument not in genetics but in culture. 
This doctrine can be thought of as cultural racism. 23 

Classical racism was so pervasive, down through the 1920s, that it 
probably figured as an explicit or implicit foundation for most arguments 
about the superiority of Europeans in history. It is as though the scholars 
who asked why Europe had risen and other societies had not done so had 
part of their answer at the outset: Europeans began with a genetic 
advantage, large or small, and then, throughout later history, they were 
always to a greater or lesser extent favored by the influence of their 
genetic superiority in matters intellectual, giving them superior 
decision-making ability, inventive ability, and so on. Here was an 
important reason why it did not, in those times, seem crucial to ask the 
question, "Why?" At root, the answer was considered self-evident. Even 
moderate racists, such as Max Weber (whose views we examine below), 
could therefore assume that European superiority was carried along by a 
kind of subtle undertow of genetics, that this made Europeans at all times 
slightly more "rational" (Weber's favorite word), and, therefore, slightly 
more progressive. It is very interesting that modern scholars retain the 
notion of the superiority of European "rationality," a notion derived from 
Weber and through him from all of nineteenth-century social thought, 
yet they vigorously deny that the source of this "rationality" is racial 
superiority. The intellectual contortions they have to go through to 
retain the one without the other will claim our interest when we discuss 
this matter. 

Among the historians whose theories about the "European miracle" 
are at present widely supported, only Max Weber uses classical racist 
argument in a clear and overt way. But Weber was writing in the late 
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when classical racism was 
accepted by the majority of European scholars. Weber's arguments are a 
rather mild form of racism. He did indeed write of the "hereditary . . . 
hysteria of the Indian," a basis for his argument that Indian religion 
prevented Indian development. 24 He considered Africans to be geneti- 
cally incapable of factory work. 25 Chinese have a "slowness in reacting to 
unusual [intellectual] stimuli," a "credulity" or "docility" that Weber 
thinks are wholly or partly hereditary traits. 26 And Europe's greater 


"rationality" has a definite hereditary basis. 27 But the fact remains that 
Weber gave much greater weight to nonracial factors. And Weber, for his 
time, was only a moderate racist. 

Moderate racism is, today, a more serious problem in the world of 
scholars than is classical racism, because it is mainly an implicit theory. We 
noted that Weber believed in the significance of racial differences, but he 
referred to the matter very rarely; yet it must have been an unstated, 
perhaps implicit, part of many of his arguments about social evolution in 
general and the comparative evolution of Europe and non-Europe in 
particular. This was fairly typical of early twentieth-century scholarship, 
hence the racism in that scholarship often is too difficult to identify, and 
the arguments presented by scholars seem not to be racist when they do not 
explicitly mention race as a factor. But more serious still is the surviving 
influence of what I call very moderate racism. A great number, perhaps the 
majority, of mainstream scholars, in the period, say, of the 1920s, believed 
that racial differences were very slight and that the individual human 
being's capabilities and potentialities would not be predictable from his or 
her race, that race differences only appeared influential on a statistical 
basis for large groups: for instance, a slightly higher average "intelligence 
quotient" for whites as against blacks. This belief was consistent with 
militant opposition to racial discrimination. But it was not much better 
than classical racism when applied to questions of social evolution and 
comparison between European and non-European history. This is so 
because the historical arguments did not need to postulate large racial 
differences. If whites, on the average, held a tiny advantage over non- 
whites in, let us say, inventiveness, that tiny advantage, working out its 
influence over the centuries and millennia, would produce the result that 
whites built high civilization and nonwhites did not. In a sense, this very 
moderate racism was a more serious problem than ordinary racism, because 
it allowed scholars to take liberal positions in opposition to overt racial 
discrimination yet continue to believe that whites are superior genetically 
to nonwhites within the subject matter of their own fields — anthropology, 
geography, history, and so on. It did reduce the significance of race to that 
of one "factor" among many, but it did not eliminate racial explanations 
• in the matter of Europe's supposed superiority. 28 

Probably it is unnecessary to say here that there is no credible 
evidence in support of the idea that races differ in genetic inheritance 
except in trivial matters like skin color. Even the idea of race is a vague 
abstraction and not really useful. For our purposes, the generalization that 
counts is this: racial differences explain nothing about culture or cultural 
evolution. 2 ^ 



Demographic behavior is usually considered the second important 
biological factor in explanations for the European miracle. Causality here 
is very murky. The specific form of theory with which I am concerned . 
claims that Europeans, historically, controlled their population growth, 
whereas other peoples did not, so that Europe tended not to suffer 
overpopulation, and did not encounter what many historians call the 
"Malthusian disasters" that supposedly prevented forward progress in 
non-European societies. Malthusianism postulates, in its essence, that 
ordinary people do not control their sexual urges and so have more | 
offspring than can be fed; a disaster of some sort ensues, with famine, : J 
pestilence, or war now reducing the population; and then people again 
breed more children than they should, and the cycle renews. Malthus 
considered this uncontrollable sexual urge to be general in the human 
species, although the educated classes could control themselves to some ; 
degree. Modern explanations for the "European miracle" modify this jj 
theory in a key respect: they assert that Europeans, historically, have had 
a cultural pattern of limiting the number of offspring whereas 
non-Europeans lacked this pattern; as a result, European population was ) 
maintained, throughout history, in rough long-term proportion to 
resources, in spite of periodic Malthusian crises, crises which were 
important in explaining various facts of European history but were vastly 
less significant than the supposed permanent grip of Malthusian 
forces — lack of demographic control and perennial overpopulation and 
misery — in non-European societies. Moreover, according to these J 
historians, whenever technological advance or some other fortunate 
circumstance led to a rise in living standards, Europeans, unlike 
non-Europeans, did not allow their population to rise and thus eliminate 
the fruits of progress. We need to notice that this argument does not really S 
center on the biology of reproduction but, again, on rationality: it is 
claimed or assumed that Europeans think about the problem of population 
and others do not. So demographic arguments for the superiority of 
Europe in history always return either to culture or to race: Europeans are 
more rational either because they have superior heredity or because they . 
have superior culture. If non-Europeans have uncontrollable sexual urges, 
if they behave like the beasts in the field, this is either a sign of genetic 
inferiority or a cultural quirk. In the arguments most frequently 
encountered today, either culture is invoked or the matter is left 
ambiguous. Yet there is a paradox. Many historians believe that 
demography is an independent causal force in history. This telief is 
generally grounded in a quasi-biological argument: ordinary people have • 



only partial success in controlling their sexual urges, and only partial 
success (or none at all) in controlling and spacing the birth of children. 30 
Many supporters of the miracle myth simply argue, then, that Europeans 
have greater, though still partial, success in controlling their behavior 
than do non-Europeans. For instance, Eric L. Jones claims that this is 
what he calls "the quality of Europeanness": 

Europe did not spend the gifts of its environment as rapidly as it got them 
in a mere insensate multiplication of the common life. 31 

In other words, Europeans do not simply reproduce thoughtlessly, as 
non-Europeans do. Jones makes the same point in many different ways; for 
instance, he says of Chinese peasants that they preferred "breeding new 
people" to improving their economic and political circumstances. 32 John 
A. Hall makes a similar point: 

The expansion of the European economy did not occur [through expansion 
of cultivated acreage], as in late traditional China, because improvements 
in output were not eaten up by a massive growth in population. The ratio 
between population and [cultivated] acreage in Europe remained favourable 
ultimately because of the relative continence of the European family.^ 

Europeans are sexually "continent." Europeans, therefore, do not suffer 

Another point worthy of notice: the historians have no difficulty 
invoking population growth as a positive factor in European history, as an 
indication of progress — for instance, the growth of Europe's population in 
the eleventh century and thereafter is seen as proof that medieval Europe 
was healthily advancing — whereas population growth in non-European 
societies is seen as negative, as the working out of Malthusian laws of 
"overpopulation." We will encounter examples of this very one-sided form 
of argument as we proceed. 

There is now abundant evidence that all societies practice population 
control. 34 They seem to do so very effectively at the aggregate level: 
although individual family groups may or may not succeed in controlling 
the incidence of conception — because the methods of birth control are 
often rather hit or miss — the society as a whole seems able to encourage 
population growth or discourage it quite successfully. 35 It is most unlikely 
that population growth takes place when the society would, in the long 
run, suffer as a consequence; or, to put the matter more precisely, the 
members of a society change their demographic behavior in the space of a 
couple of generations when it becomes clear to them, as they observe 


changes around them in the probability of infants surviving to adulthood, 
and so on, that such change is desirable. The knowledge that all of this is 
indeed the case has only appeared recently. 3( > But this accumulating 
evidence really cuts the ground from under all Malthusian theories, 
historical and contemporary, European and non-European. The 
argument that population growth is an automatic, biological process, 
which occurs whether or not there is food enough to feed additional 
mouths, is simply wrong. 37 

When the evidence began to accumulate that historic European 
populations did indeed practice population control, some scholars 
decided, appropriately, that the old Malthusian models do not make sense 
in Europe: family size was kept small, births were controlled, and so forth, 
back in the Middle Ages. This called for rejection of one traditional 
theory, the idea that there is a general pattern for all so-called 
preindustrial societies (or "traditional societies," or "peasant societies"), 
involving high and uncontrolled birth rates, large families, etc., and thus, 
inevitably, a Malthusian trend toward overpopulation. Most historians 
today seem still to be wedded to the Malthusian theory, and still believe 
that medieval social change in Europe was mainly, or at least partly, 
produced by Malthusian cycles of overpopulation. 38 But some historians 
now reject this perspective: population, in essence, is viewed by them as 
a dependent variable, not an independent variable. 

But only in Europe. This newer, essentially anti-Malthusian, theory 
was rapidly shaped into a new explanation for the European "miracle." It 
was simply asserted that European people, historically, controlled their 
population, and so, when they accumulated surpluses of food and 
commodities and wealth, these were not subsequently dissipated as 
population grew out of control and stole away the savings. This pattern, 
said these historians, was uniquely European and it was one important 
reason why Europeans were able to accumulate wealth and eventually rise 
into modernity and capitalism. Non-Europeans, by contrast, continued in 
their unmodern, traditional pattern, with overpopulation wiping out all 
benefits of forward progress. These Eurocentric historians, in a manner 
characteristic of tunnel history, did not notice that new scholarship on 
demography, some of it on historical demography — in various non- 
European parts of the world, from India to Barbados — was tending to 
overturn Malthusian notions as they apply to non-Europe just as readily 
as had been the case a decade earlier in European scholarship. 39 

We will take up a related matter, theories about the uniqueness of 
the European family, at a later point in this chapter. For now, it is enough 
to say, simply, that the demographic arguments in support of the 
European miracle are utterly unconvincing. This holds true both for the 


theories grounded in the belief in baleful Malthusian forces and for those 
which assert that Europeans, uniquely, know how to avoid those forces. 


Environmental determinism, the theory that the natural environment 
strongly influences human affairs and human history, is no longer a 
popular doctrine, but it is still used quite regularly in explanations for the 
European "miracle." The point should, however, be qualified: Environ- 
mental determinism, in the form it is used in these arguments today, is a 
"determinism" in a limited sense only. It does not claim that the environ- 
ment explains everything, or that the environment is the most important 
explanatory factor. It is deterministic in the sense that it treats the 
environment as a separate, simple cause or "factor" not mediated by 
culture: something external to culture and influencing it from the outside. 
One finds each Eurocentric historian adding one or a number of environ- 
mentalistic arguments or factors to the mix, which, as a whole, explains 
the superiority of Europe. Even the historians who want to build their case 
mainly on social or political or intellectual foundations nonetheless 
manage (I know of very few exceptions) to throw one or more environ- 
mentalistic arguments into the stewpot, to give it body or flavor. 

Environmentalistic arguments can be stacked into two piles. One 
consists of the set of claims about the superior qualities of Europe's 
environment and how they help to explain the rise of Europe. The other 
pile consists of arguments as to why the nasty environments of other places 
have blocked development there. The two sorts of argument are — perhaps 
surprisingly — very different in form. Let us begin with the latter. 

Two classical environmentalistic theories have been used over and 
over again, and still remain in use, to explain the (supposed) nondevelop- 
ment of Africa and Asia. The first theory argues that tropical regions are 
innately inferior to cooler regions. This theory is used, for the most part, to 
dispose of Africa. The second theory argues that peoples in arid regions are 
held back from development because aridity necessitates irrigation, and 
irrigation along with related features of irrigated river-valley life leads, 
again necessarily, to the kind of civilization that is historically stagnant. 
This theory disposes of Asian civilizations, along with Egypt. (Most of Asia 
is not, in fact, arid.) I will discuss both of these theories, and more briefly 
a few other environmentalistic explanations for the backwardness of 
Africa and Asia. 

Nasty 'Tropical Africa 

The idea that tropical climates are nasty, and inhibit the forward march 
of civilization, is a very old one in European thought. 40 During the 


nineteenth century this notion was widely used to show why Africans 
have (supposedly) remained uncivilized, and must naturally accept 
European colonial control; it was one of the core theories of classical 
diffusionism. 41 It was routinely built in to theories about the uniqueness 
of Europe, the European miracle, although I must add that historians did I 
not usually consider the reasons for Africa's nonrise worth bothering 
about: the matter was considered self-explanatory, and labors were 
devoted to the seemingly more important question why Asia (and North 
Africa) did not rise. And the tropical-nastiness theory is still quite 
regularly employed in historians' arguments. It is, for instance, crucial to 
Jones's argument in The European Miracle. It is also significant in a special 
arena: the debates among historians about African slavery, the slave 
trade, and the slave plantation system. By contrast, geographers, who in 
general know something about the natural environment and have long 
grappled with the theories of environmental determinism, do not, today, 
take the nasty-tropics theory very seriously. 42 

The tropical-nastiness doctrine consists mainly of three distinct 
theories. The first concerns itself with the supposed negative effect of a 
hot, humid climate on the human mind and body; the second, with the 
supposed inferiority of tropical climates for food production; the third, 
with the supposed prevalence of disease in tropical regions. Down to the • 
1940s, or thereabouts, there was some ambivalence among Europeans as to 
the thesis that humans cannot labor as effectively in the humid tropics as , 
in other climates. The majority opinion had been that Africans can labor 
under the hot sun — a convenient rationalization for plantation slavery — 
but that Europeans cannot do so, although some diffusionist arguments 
were built on the idea that tropical conditions induce sloth, indolence, 
etc., in everyone, and thus the need for control-at-a-distance from temper- 
ate-climate civilizations. Eventually it became clear, from many sources of 
evidence including physiological studies, that human bodies of all sorts 
can labor as effectively in the tropics as elsewhere if the bodies in question 
have had time to adjust to tropical conditions. 43 Although the claim that 
people in humid tropical regions cannot think as well as people in 
temperate regions — the tropical sun "boils the brain" — was almost univer- : 
sally accepted by Europeans in the last century and was incorporated into 
some well-known theories about European civilizational superiority put 
forward (for instance by Huntington and Markham) in the first half of the 
present century, this theory, never grounded in evidence, is now rejected 
across the board. Eric L. Jones is one of the few present-day European 
historians who is unaware that this theory of "climatic energy" (as it was 
called in the old days) has been exploded. Not only does Jones accept it as 
vau'ci out he gives it some considerab/e significance: 


Civilizations had long been rising and falling in warm latitudes, although 
they appear to have been springing up farther and farther north. Such 
explanation as the literature offers for this shift is essentially climatic 
(Gilfillan 1920; Lambert 1971). On the one hand it correlates mean 
temperature and the output of human energy, and on the other it claims 
that in warm regions man was subject to the build-up of endoparasitic 
infestation which caused each society there to reach a plateau of attainment 
and then stagnate. 44 

It should be noted that "the literature" does not support any of this. The 
scholarly literature roundly rejects the theory of "climatic energy," which 
has not in fact been seriously defended since the 1950s. Climatic 
determinism as a whole is almost a dead letter. There has been no 
northward "shift" of civilization (ancient civilizations were located from 
the equator to 45° latitude). The notion that tropical regions are so 
parasite-infested that cultures stagnate is false (it will briefly claim our 
attention later). Jones's general belief that hot climates are "debilitating" 

§ has little if any scholarly support, and does not in turn support the idea 
that Europe's climate led to a European miracle. 45 There simply is no basis 
for arguing that midlatitude climates are superior to tropical climates in 
terms of psychological or physical effects on human beings. 

The fruitfulness of tropical environments was much debated by 

; nineteenth-century European scholars. Some argued that tropical regions 
are lush and bountiful, but used this proposition not as a basis for asserting 
high development potential but rather the contrary: tropical environ- 
ments are too bountiful to offer what Arnold Toynbee might have called 
a sufficient challenge to humanity, and so progress did not take place 
except under colonial guidance. We deal with this thesis later in the 
chapter. Our concern now is with the exact opposite thesis, which asserts, 

; quite simply, that tropical environments are miserably poor in their 
potential for agriculture and it is this that prevents tropical regions from 
developing. (The term "tropics," or more properly "humid tropics," refers 
to regions with no cold season and with moderate to high rainfall: roughly 

1 750 mm. of rain or more per year. Most of sub-Saharan Africa falls within 
the humid tropics, as does most of southern and southeastern Asia and 
most of Middle and South America.) According to this thesis, little food 

| can be produced on a given piece of land in the humid tropics. 

Now this thesis — low agricultural productivity of tropical land — is 

v hard to defend on the evidence, since population densities in the humid 
tropics range from very low (in parts of the Amazon Basin, for instance) 
to extraordinarily high (in Java, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Barbados, 

\ Rwanda, and many other regions). The argument is grounded, rather, in 
a theory about the nature of tropical soils. To put matters in perspective, 


the scientific study of tropical soils is a very young field; few contributions 
of any consequence can be dated earlier than World War II if we exclude 
highly particular studies about the soils used for plantation crops like 
sugar-cane.46 The really crucial information, relevant to the proof or 
disproof of the traditional theories, was obtained in research carried out in 
a number of experimental centers in the late 1940s and thereafter, and 
then slowly disseminated to the world scholarly community. The result is 
that some historians (including some current writers about the "miracle") 
can still, today, make use of quite fantastic theories about the supposedly 
evil nature of tropical soils. Some of these theories were refuted quite 
recently; others are now, today, very close to refutation; a few others, 
hardly defensible, nonetheless still lie around in the scholarly literature, 
unrefuted. A brief, only slightly technical, comment on these theories is 
necessary at this point of the discussion. 

The old standard theory about tropical soils runs about as follows: 
Because of the high heat and abundant rainfall in the humid tropics, these 
soils cannot accumulate organic topsoil, since organic matter decomposes 
rapidly and is quickly leached out as rainwater seeps downward in the soil. 
Tropical soils, therefore, are low in plant nutrients. Also, they are subject 
to severe erosion, partly because tropical landforms tend to have high 
average slopes, partly because high rainfall means high runoff and 
therefore much surface erosion. 

These two basic physical propositions, about infertility of the soil and 
erosion respectively, were then married to a cultural proposition, in the 
following argument. Because of the low fertility and erodibility of tropical 
soils, farmers must practice what is called "shifting agriculture." (This is a 
farming system in which a field is prepared by clearing a piece of forest with 
the use of fire, and then, after one or more years of cultivation, is 
abandoned, another field being then cleared in turn and in its turn 
abandoned, in a continuous process of shifting fields.) The standard theory 
(as it was argued before the 1950s or thereabouts) then makes a series of 
sweeping generalizations about the combined effects of infertile, erodible 
tropical soils and shifting agriculture. It was claimed that farmers cannot 
return to the original piece of land after it has been abandoned and left 
fallow for some time, since the soils are too poor to regenerate and since 
burning the piece of land permanently damages the soil. Even where the 
environment is lush enough so that farmers can return and re-use each 
field, the production from each field will be less and less as the cycles of use 
and abandonment continue, and the soil will become more and more 
infertile until finally it is unusable. All of this implied that peasant 
communities would be unable to remain in any one region permanently; 


that the villages themselves would have to be moved as large expanses of 
forest land were used and then abandoned and the people needed to move 
elsewhere to find fresh, cultivable lands. The result would be grave indeed: 
a very sparse and highly mobile population with little or no chance of 
developing large-scale trade, cities, and stable states. 

The entire argument was inserted at this point into world history and 
world geography. Most of sub-Saharan Africa is tropical. Therefore, 
shifting agriculture must be used there and no civilization can develop 
there. Or if civilization manages somehow to evolve to one extent or 
another, it must sooner or later collapse. (The decline of the classical 
lowland Mayan civilization was regularly used as the type example of this 
historical outcome; it is still so used by a few scholars.) 

This traditional model of tropical soils and shifting agriculture was 
gradually softened as more information became available to students of 
tropical soils and tropical agriculture. By the 1960s it was generally known 
to the specialist community (though not yet to the majority of historians 
and social scientists) that shifting agriculture does not damage the soil 
under normal — that is, typical and widespread — circumstances. 47 Almost 
never do shifting cultivators move their villages because of soil exhaus- 
tion. (It became known, also, that shifting cultivation had been wide- 
spread for many centuries in Europe, and there it had not apparently done 
any damage to the environment.) From this emerged a softer cultural 
model: if population densities are low, so that farmers can leave each 
abandoned field for the many years required for soil and vegetation 
regeneration, then shifting agriculture will remain an equilibrium farming 
system, and there will be no long-term deterioration of the environment. 

But even this modification would not much alter the historical 
judgment about Africa and some other tropical regions: historians might 
still believe that any civilization arising in such a tropical area cannot be 
very complex under ordinary circumstances, because a low population 
density of food producers would not seem to provide the basis for a 
substantial complex of urban centers, religious centers, states, and the like. 
(As to the lowland Mayan civilization, some scholars continued to claim 
that shifting agriculture had destroyed the subsistence base of that civiliza- 
tion, while others claimed that the decline and abandonment of cultural 
centers like Tikal had been due to other sorts of processes.) In any event, 
the prevailingly Malthusian view of peasants led to the general assumption 
that population would grow out of control and regions of tropical shifting 
agriculture would never rise very high in places like tropical Africa, 

The model in this form is still current among historians. It is 


common in the European miracle literature, as the primary environmental 
basis for claiming that Africa could not have "risen" in the same way that 
Europe did. It is explicit in the work of some non-African Africanist 
historians. 48 

Evidence is now available to reject this entire theory, the notion 
that tropical soils are bad for agriculture and therefore somehow inhibit 
human history. First of all, we now know that tropical soils are not 
inferior. They are different. Because of the higher rate of chemical and 
physical weathering under humid-tropical conditions, soil production 
from the underlying rock is much more rapid than is the case in cooler 
climates. Therefore, soils maintain their fertility in considerable degree 
from the dissolution of minerals, and much less from the accumulation 
of organic matter. Erosion tends to be more serious, but regeneration 
tends to be more rapid. Tropical soils that have developed on rocks that 
are rich in plant-nutrient minerals are exceptionally fertile. Those 
developed on rocks that are not nutrient-rich are exceptionally infertile. 
There is no basis for comparing tropical and temperate "averages": 
neither is better; they are different. 

Evidence is also available now to reject the old view of shifting 
agriculture. Farmers practice it on poor soils, being careful not to let fires 
get out of control. They use a great number of techniques to assist the 
natural vegetation to regenerate, and to increase soil fertility in the 
cultivated fields, including green and animal manuring. When there is 
a land shortage, the shifting rotation is shortened, by the use of various 
techniques of intensification such as mounding or terracing, increased 
labor applied to such matters as weeding, adoption of different crops and 
different varieties, and many more.^ 9 The correlation between shifting 
agriculture and low population density is a function of history, not 
ecology. In the Americas it reflects in part the post-Columbian 
depopulation. (The Amazon Basin, which today may have a farming 
population of perhaps one million, probably had seven times that 
number in 1492. 50 ) In part also it reflects the often unnoticed fact that 
in most regions of the American tropics giant cattle ranches have pushed 
farmers off the better land, giving a statistical appearance of low 
population density: cattle have replaced people. 51 The same process 
occurred in white-settled regions of southern Africa. Elsewhere in 
tropical Africa, most farmers practice forms of agriculture that should not 
be described as shifting agriculture except in marginal regions, like 
mountainsides and semi-arid wastes. 52 Typically, they are sedentary or 
semisedentary farming systems, involving such things as semipermanent 
yam mounds and tree-crop farming, or irrigated farming, or mixed 
farming, or they are systems in which the period of cultivation exceeds 


the period of fallow, and fertility is maintained by many different cultural 
practices including the use of green and animal manure. But the most 
important generalization is this simple one: where there is soil 
<■ degradation, and hunger, and poor farming, it reflects cultural causes 
from recent history or colonial history. It does not reflect inherent 
limitations of tropical agriculture and it does not reflect technological 
ignorance on the part of farmers. 

A few variant theories about the low food production potential of 
the humid-tropical in general and Africa in particular are invoked by 
, some historians. Some claim that Africans were unable even to farm in 
Africa's humid-tropical regions until new technology, invented by 
non-Africans, diffused into the continent. One form of this argument 
! claims that ironworking was brought into Africa a little over 2,000 years 
: ago, perhaps by the Romans, and only then were Africans able to tackle 
-. the tropical forests. 53 Since shifting agriculture was practiced with stone 
■ implements in ancient Europe, and since ironworking appeared in 
Africa — possibly after independent invention — around 800 B.C. or 
earlier, this theory is invalid. 

An even more outlandish theory builds on the fact that some 
Southeast Asian crops diffused into East Africa two millennia ago. Some 
historians blandly assert that Africans could not farm in the tropical forests 
until these tropical crops, domesticated by non- Africans, became available 
for planting in the African forests. 54 It has, in fact, been well known for a 
long time that Africans domesticated a great number of crops for humid- 
" tropical regions, notably many varieties of the yam {Dioscorea spp.) the 
prime staple food there. 55 Both of these diffusionist myths seem to be 
' connected to an important colonialist belief — now important as an excuse 
for apartheid in South Africa. The belief is that advanced African cultures, 
with agriculture, trade, and states, expanded southward through the 
: continent only very late in history, mainly because of the forbidding 
; nature of the tropical part of the continent which held back their 
:• southward movement. According to this myth of emptiness (see Chapter 
1), they had not arrived in (most of) South Africa when the Europeans 
| took over that region, and supporters of white supremacy in South Africa 
claim, on this basis, that whites, having arrived first, have political and 
. economic rights to own the land of South Africa. 56 In fact, the expansion 
of agricultural peoples in Africa occurred thousands of years ago; recent 
archaeology has shown that rain forest regions were settled by farmers at 
least 3,000 years ago, and whites did not arrive first in South Africa. 

Another variant of the myth of tropical nastiness as applied to Africa 
: is the notion that rainfall variability in tropical Africa is uniquely and 
devastatingly high, such that agriculture could not, in precolonial times, 


be dependably practiced and famines were frequent and widespread. This 
then leads into various arguments about African backwardness. For some 
historians (among them Philip Curtin) there was a basic tendency toward 
mobility of populations and internal slave trading; for others (notoriously 
Joseph Miller), there was savagery and cannibalism. 57 These historians 
belong to what I will call the "absolutionist" school of Eurocentric 
Africanist history, which absolves Europeans of most of the responsibility 
for slavery and the problems of modern Africa by finding explanations for 
such matters within Africa itself, often in the African environment. The 
European miracle historians make regular use of these arguments for 
purposes of comparison. It happens to be the case that rainfall variability 
is a serious problem in all semi-arid regions, including the Sahel zone 
south of the Sahara in Africa and also the Great Plains in the central 
United States, the steppes of Russia, and so on. Africa is not unique. The 
more humid parts of this continent do not have a peculiar problem of 
climatic uncertainty: this is a historians' myth, partly traditional, partly 
resurrected after the recent Sahelian-Sudanic famines. The latter did not 
reflect drought-proneness of the region. They reflected human problems, 
mostly inherited from the colonial period, which became disasters when 
ordinary rainfall cycles went through their dry phases. 58 

Much the same sort of argument applies to other parts of the tropics. 
In southern and southeastern Asia we tend, broadly, to find permanent, 
that is, sedentary, agriculture on lands with relatively high fertility, and 
shifting agriculture or tree crops on lands with low fertility. The 
experience of colonialism during the past two centuries or so has muddled 
that picture somewhat, since there have been major population 
movements and large population increases in some areas — with conse- 
quent distortions of farming systems in reaction to land shortage and 
other nonenvironmental pressures. Yet the generalization still holds in 
regard to the environment: tropical conditions do not carry the 
implication of poor agricultural potential. 5 ^ 

What of the opposing theory, that the tropics are lush and bountiful? 
Down through the middle of the nineteenth century this theory was very 
widely accepted, and also this corollary: Since the fruits of the earth are 
so easily obtained in tropical climes, humans do not have to exert 
themselves to make a living. And so they do not progress. The argument 
was then woven into many different theories. Buckle put forward one 
such theory. 60 Marx put forward another, rather tersely, in a footnote in 
Volume 1 of Capital, asserting without discussion that tropical regions do 
not develop toward capitalism because here "Nature is too lavish . . . She 
does not impose upon [man] any necessity to develop himself." 61 This 
brief comment seems to be the only occasion on which Marx raised the 


question why humid-tropical regions, including Africa, did not develop as 
Europe did. 

The bountiful-tropics theory is still used today in some theories that 
try to explain the uniqueness of Europe's rise. I suppose that every 
European child of our own time has seen some version of the cartoon 
showing the native sitting under the coconut tree, waiting patiently for his 
food to drop into his hands. This is not merely a relic of oldtime thought 
or an implicit theory. Eric L. Jones uses the bountiful-tropics theory in The 
European Miracle. (In West Africa "living was easy." 62 ) John A. Hall uses 
it. 63 Occasionally it is used by Marxists, faithful to the letter of Marx's 
comment quoted above. 64 Probably there is no need to explain why these 
bountiful-tropics theories are unacceptable, since this — as we have seen — 
is done time and again by scholars who insist that tropical regions are not 
bountiful; rather, they are barren and nasty. Neither the one view nor the 
other makes sense. And note that both are used toward the same end: to 
show that tropical regions have inferior potential in history. 

Finally, we come to the theory that tropical environments are so 
disease-ridden that historical progress there is slowed, stopped, or 
prevented. Some historians develop this argument specifically with 
reference to Africa. Some others apply it sweepingly to all tropical 
regions: for Eric L. Jones it is a major reason why both Asia and Africa 
remained backward by comparison to Europe. Like the tropical-nastiness 
theories discussed previously, this one is traditional in European thought, 
and this fact is critically important for an understanding of the survival of 
the theory down to the present and its use in the European miracle 

One of the axioms of classical diffusionism, as we have seen in 
Chapter 1, is the idea that diseases and other evil things naturally 
counterdiffuse into Europe from non-Europe. It was therefore assumed by 
many scholars (including, for instance, Buckle) that non-Europe is both 
the source and the natural home of many — and the worst — maladies. 65 
That axiomatic belief is still with us: plagues from the Black Death to 
AIDS are still assumed — for it is always an assumption, whether or not 
reinforced by evidence — to come from the non-European world. 66 

This foundation belief was reinforced during the eighteenth and 
nineteenth centuries by the reports of upper-class European travelers 
about the, to them, dirty, disgusting, diseased communities they found 
outside of Europe. This was both a class phenomenon and a cultural one: 
alien lifeways necessarily seemed to be unhealthy. But the belief gained 
powerful reinforcement during the nineteenth century, when the growing 
wealth and modernization of (much of) Europe led to a dramatic 
improvement in health conditions, grounded in general improvement in 


living conditions, improved sanitation, and, finally, progress in medicine. 
Europe, therefore, seemed to be somehow healthy, non-Europe, somehow 
unhealthy. This error is still very widespread. Underdeveloped countries 
are poor. With poverty comes ill health. But the ill health is thought, 
incorrectly, to somehow stem from the natural environments of these 
regions or from the cultures of their inhabitants, not from poverty. 
However disease-ridden India, Africa, China, etc., may have been in this 
period, Europe itself had been just as disease-ridden a century or so earlier 
(a fact known in part from the demographic facts about life expectancy of 
ordinary Europeans down to the eighteenth century). 

In this same period European colonial territories were expanding, 
and it became evident that Europeans living in colonies tended to fall 
prey to various kinds of exotic diseases. The most extreme case apparently 
was West Africa, which was called in those times "the white man's grave." 
Here the insecurity of the quite small coastal settlements — colonial 
territories in sub-Saharan Africa did not really expand until very late in 
the nineteenth century — combined with the massive effects of the 
movement of slaves (many of whom died in these settlements) produced 
peculiarly unhealthy conditions, though the Europeans thought the 
source of the problem was the innate unhealthfulness of Africa itself. 

Most of the important diseases of humans and their domesticated 
animals are not peculiarly tropical. Smallpox, typhoid, pneumonia, 
diphtheria, measles, bubonic plague, anthrax, and many other diseases are 
found across many physical environments, and their severity from place to 
place tends to reflect, more than anything else, conditions of human 
poverty, crowding, and the like. To some extent this is true even of the 
supposedly "tropical diseases," such as malaria (which, in fact, used to 
plague extratropical areas, including New York). Some forms of malaria 
tend to be associated with stagnant water, and thus with irrigated 
agriculture, in a wide range of climates. Other forms, including some of 
the most serious ones, are associated with tropical forest conditions, the 
mosquito vector often breeding in bromeliad growths on the trees 
themselves. It is true that these forms of malaria are especially associated 
with shifting cultivation in the humid tropics. But farmers spend 
relatively little time in the forest, if indeed there is forest. And they 
develop immunities such that malaria does not ravage their communities 
(as it does ravage communities of foreigners in their midst: traders, 
colonial military personnel, and so on). 

The question is: after all such matters have been taken into 
consideration, is there, then, a remainder that can be called "the innate 
unhealthiness of the tropics?" Probably the answer is no. 

Although this generalization is now widely accepted, some historians 


cling tenaciously to the idea that Africa is and always has been a uniquely 
disease-ridden place. This is given as one reason for Africa's (supposed) 
marginal role in world history, at least in modern world history. (Accord- 
ing to William McNeill, disease "more than anything else, is why Africa 
remained backward in the development of civilization when compared to 
temperate lands." 67 ) In the view of some of the absolutionist historians, 
notably Curtin, the disease-ridden character of West and Central Africa in 
and after the sixteenth century is a key part of the explanation for the 
complementary facts that this region became the source of slaves for the 
Atlantic plantation economy and that this region, instead of "rising" with 
the growth of the Atlantic economy, instead remained undeveloped. It is 
important to put this theory into perspective in terms of the confrontation 
mentioned at the beginning of this chapter between traditional European 
historians and the Third- Worldist, revisionist school. Traditional scholars 
(at least those of the absolutionist school) claim that Africa in the 
sixteenth century had a rather small and mobile population, with little 
development of complex civilization and state organization, and with 
slave raiding and slave trading as important features of its society. Africa 
had not risen above this very low level of civilization mainly because of the 
prevalence of human and animal diseases — with other environmental 
factors of the sort previously discussed being added on as additional factors. 
Africa thus quite naturally became the prime source of plantation slaves; 
and, also naturally, the slave trade did not fundamentally alter the reality 
of African life. 

Third World historians tend to dispute all of this. Africa was densely 
populated before the slave trade, and the slave trade utterly devastated the 
continent, destroying states and civilizations, depopulating vast regions, 
and leading, overall, to disastrous underdevelopment. The slave trade 
mainly reflected Europe's power relative to coastal African societies in the 
seventeenth century and thereafter, in consequence of the immensely 
profitable American plantations and — as we discuss in Chapter 4 — the 
fact that militarily and commercially powerful West African states were 
mostly located some distance from the coast. Disease increased in intensity 
because of the devastation caused by the slave trade: depopulation, the 
abandonment of large areas formerly cultivated and grazed (now turned to 
forest and scrub), wars, economic decline, and so on. One crucial example 
of this devastation has to do with the tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis or 
African sleeping sickness. Traditional scholars claim that tsetse fly 
infestation prevented Africans from developing extensive cattle herding 
, in earlier times and in many other ways contributed to historical 
stagnation. The response is that trypanosomiasis, like anthrax, is a disease 
with many mammalian hosts. Depopulation led to the massive expansion 


of wastelands, and of wild animal host populations, and thus to the spread 
of conditions in which the tsetse fly could flourish. This in turn changed 
trypanosomiasis from an endemic disease to which both humans and 
cattle had some immunity and exposure, which was kept in check by the 
relatively full occupation of lands, into a devastating disease that, since 
the end of the last century, has indeed prevented the development of 
animal husbandry in some areas of Africa. There is considerable evidence 
that the expansion of bushland led to the expansion of tsetse-fly-infested 
areas and thus to economic and social misery. 68 Beyond this, there is little 
solid evidence either way about the history of health conditions in Africa 
and among Africans (not colonial visitors), and there are many reasons to 
doubt the inherited diffusionist assumptions and prejudices on this 
matter. In any event, one cannot make a case that disease was an 
independent force that "blocked" development in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Arid, Despotic Asia 

Asia is a large place and contains a large variety of environments. There 
is, understandably, a very long and varied list of traditional environmen- 
talistic arguments, most of them particular to some one part of Asia and 
inapplicable to other parts. Back in the early nineteenth century, a pious 
form of environmental determinism prevailed in geography, and it 
seemed sensible to invoke a single explanation for all of this variety: God 
had placed different natural obstacles in the paths of different Asian 
peoples — heat in one place, cold in another, drought in a third. Today it 
is more common to find, among historians writing about the "European 
miracle," not a list of Asia's environmental infirmities but rather a set of 
separate comparative judgments, each centered on Europe, and each 
referring to a specific period in European history. Europe, or some part of 
Europe, at some particular time, was superior to all of Asia in 
environmental qualities X and Y and Z. Or, more typically, the 
comparison will invoke environmental obstacles for one Asian region, 
political obstacles for another, religious obstacles for a third, and so on, in 
a very eclectic sort of argument. 

For these reasons I will not review all the environmentalistic 
theories as to why Asia supposedly remained backward in comparison to 
Europe. I will deal with the comparative judgments about climate, 
landforms, and so on, one by one, in the following section of this chapter 
("Temperate Europe"). 

There is, however, one very large and coherent theory that is used 
today, much as it was in the last century, to deal with Asia as a whole in 
one grand and sweeping judgment of inferiority. This theory has a number 


of variants which are known by various names, among them "the Asiatic 
mode of production," "hydraulic society," and "Oriental despotism." The 
theory is not usually thought of as an example of environmental determin- 
ism, since it seems to start its argument with technology, claiming that 
irrigation-based ("hydraulic") societies have certain highly distinctive 
characteristics that inhibit historical development. But one of the roots of 
this argument is environmental. It is the claim that aridity in Asia made 
irrigation necessary. One can properly ask how a theory of this sort can be 
applied to parts of Asia that are not at all arid. (It has even been invoked 
as an explanation for Stalinism in wet, cold Russia. 69 ) To understand this 
contradiction, and to understand accordingly why this theory is untenable 
in all its forms and variants, we must look briefly at the history of the 

European writers of the past half-millennium have tended to view 
Asia as a place where people are inherently unfree and society is 
inherently unchanging. It would take us far afield to go into the evolution 
of this belief, but by the eighteenth century it had become a significant 
part of the emerging doctrine of diffusionism. 70 It was accepted as an 
axiomatic truth, rarely questioned, but efforts were made to explain this 
inherent "Oriental despotism" (as it came to be called) in terms of 
everything from theology to race to environment. The belief seems to 
have been applied mainly to the Ottoman Empire, which was in that 
period a political and military threat to some European societies and a 
commercial threat to others, until the late eighteenth-century expansion 
of direct European colonialism in India and Southeast Asia gave the 
theory new functions. Not only was the notion of Oriental despotism 
useful as a justification and rationalization for colonial expansion, but it 
became the basis for colonial legal doctrines that were being fashioned at 
that time. In Asia, it was decided, there is no private property in land 
because the ruler, despotically, owns everything. Therefore, when we 
Europeans depose the ruler, <we own everything. And if we take over a 
despotic state, we acquire the rights of despotic rule over a people who 
were unfree to begin with. (But European rule, however despotic — 
colonies had no democracy — was described as bestowing "freedom.") 

The modern form of Oriental despotism was often connected back to 
the biblical "Orient." When modern Asian societies were described as 
"stagnant," it seemed fair to assert that they basically retained the 
character described for them in the Old Testament. (The Old Testament, 
we recall, spoke of the existence of great cities, empires, agriculture, etc.) 
While it was necessary to explain modern wonders like the Taj Mahal and 
great modern Asian states, it was not difficult to view these as relatively 
minor advances over the original biblical civilization, and to find 


secondary explanations for the evident fact that Asian civilizations had 
advanced somewhat — but long ago they had ceased to advance, and so 
remained essentially biblical and essentially stagnant. 71 

I think it likely that the geographical connection between aridity; 
and "Orient" comes partly from this source, that is, from the biblical 
images of arid regions like Mesopotamia and Egypt. Partly, no doubt, it 
comes from the fact that early modern Europe, down through the 
mid-eighteenth century, thought mainly of the dry western Asian regions, 
the Ottoman realm and the Persian-Inner-Asian region, as "the Orient,"" 
because the farther Orient, from India to Japan, was still somewhat 
remote from European attention. In any event, early nineteenth-century 
geographers like the great Karl Ritter were describing one special type of 
geographical-cultural system, the type associated with Asian civilizations 
of the great river valleys of arid Asia and northeastern Africa, notably the 
Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Indus, and smaller valleys of similar 
character, and ascribing the traditional Asiatic traits of despotism to 
regions of this type. They seem to have extended this model somehow to : 
comprehend the river valleys of wetter parts of Asia, through a logical 
leap from the idea of irrigated river-valley civilizations in arid regions to 
irrigated river-valley civilizations in Asia as a whole. 

The general association of Oriental despotism with river-valley 
civilizations, from Egypt to China, was commonplace in the nineteenth 
century. 72 Marx and Engels, however, took the idea a definitive step 
forward by advancing a theory that derived Oriental despotism from 
propositions about aridity and irrigation. 73 In the 1850s Marx and Engels 
were, for the first time, seriously confronting the question of how their 
essential theory of historical evolution could be applied on a world scale. 
It needs to be said first that they were probably the most skeptical 
European thinkers of their time as regards all of the traditional and (as 
they insisted) elitist social theories then in vogue. But their skepticism 
had inevitable limits, since they were products of an elitist German 
education and since they knew almost nothing about the world outside of 
Europe apart from what they learned in the press, and in books and official 
papers presenting the colonial point of view with all its prejudices. 
Accordingly, Marx and Engels did not seriously question the prevailing 
doctrine that the Orient is in some sense despotic and to some degree 
historically stagnant and unprogressive. But their skepticism about 
European social theory, with its elitist foundations, immunized them from 
the usual explanations for Asian despotism and stagnation. Asians were 
no less rational than Europeans, and no less willing to struggle against 
economic exploitation. This reasoning led Marx and Engels to speculate 
that the cause of Asiatic despotism and unprogressiveness lay, not in 


human society, but in the natural environment. In Asia, it appeared, 
social evolution had not led to private property ownership: the ruler, 
despotically, owned the land, except where it remained as original 
communal property. Hence this speculation from Engels: 

The absence of property in land is indeed the key to the whole of the East. 
Herein lies its political and religious history. But how does it come about 
that the Orientals did not arrive at landed property, even in its feudal form? 
I think it is mainly due to the climate, taken in connection with the nature 
of the soil, especially with the great stretches of desert which extend from 
the Sahara straight across Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary up to the 
highest Asian plateau. Artificial irrigation is here the first condition of 
agriculture. . . . An Oriental government never had more than three 
departments: finance (plunder at home), war (plunder at home and 
abroad), and public works. ^ 

This theory was advanced very tentatively by Marx and Engels, and 
was modified in later writings; it appears that Engels rejected it altogether 
in his late writings. 75 Our interest lies in the fact that the environmental - 
istic component remains influential today, even though it is now obvious 
that Marx and Engels were mistaken in the notion that Asia is arid. The 
theory nonetheless has had an effect on recent Marxist discussions about 
the European rise of capitalism and the (supposed) nonrise of capitalism 
in Asia. 76 More crucially, it has been woven into the mainstream 
European miracle literature in an interesting intellectual sea change. 

Max Weber, early in the present century, and Karl Wittfogel, at 
midcentury, are probably the key figures in the transformation of this 
rather archaic doctrine into a modern environmentalistic argument for 
the European miracle. Weber had little to say about the natural 
environment per se. Drawing on various scholarly ideas which were in 
circulation in turn-of-the-century Europe, including Marxian ideas, he 
argued that the development of private property in Europe's Antiquity 
and Middle Ages was indeed one of the primary features of social 
evolution toward capitalism. He stressed what he saw as a fundamental 
difference between the rise of feudal (seigneurial) property, which was 
close to, and moving toward, full private property, and a contrasting form 
that he associated with the Asian river-valley civilizations (and ancient 
Egypt). He saw that social form as being associated closely with the need 
to irrigate in such environments, hence associated, inferentially, with the 
environment. These latter societies were, he said, despotic and land was 
not, in general, passed fully into the hands of officials, but rather lent to 
tHem on temporary tenure, on condition of service, as a means of 
providing them with rental income, men for military levies, and so on. 


Irrigation required collective labor appropriation under despotic rule, for 
maintenance of canals and waterworks. In forested lands of Europe, such 
despotic rule over peasants had not been needed. 77 Thus in Greece and j 
elsewhere in Europe yeoman farmers, individualists, became the signature 
of rural society. Cities, instead of being mainly the seat of despotic power, 
became truly urban. Thus, in general, there was a peculiarly western 
trajectory, toward modern urban and capitalist society. 

The crucial factor which made Near Eastern development so different [from 
Greek development] was the need for irrigation systems, as a result of which 
the cities were closely connected with building canals and constant 
regulation of waters and rivers, all of which demanded the existence of a 
unified bureaucracy. There was an irreversible character to this develop- 
ment, and with it went subjugation of the individual. . . . On the other 
hand in Greece . . . the position of the monarchs declined . . . and so began 
a development which ended . . . with an army recruited from yeoman 
farmers who provided their own arms. Political power necessarily passed to 
this class, and therewith started to emerge that purely secular civilization 
which characterized Greek society and caused capitalist development in 
Greece to differ from that in the Near East. 78 

Weber's formulation of the difference between Oriental societies 
and Western societies has become one of the fundamental arguments of 
the miracle theory as it is put forward in our own time. But Weber did not 
put firmly in place one important part of the edifice. This is the matter of 
showing why irrigation societies acquired the special characteristics 
assigned to them: despotism and stagnation, and, beyond that, lack of 
private property, lack of full urban development, and so on. This essential 
technical and environmental elaboration of the theory was introduced in 
1955 by Karl Wittfogel, in his book Oriental Despotism. 

Wittfogel, an ex-Marxist who started his argument with the Marxian 
proposition which we have discussed, tried to show that societies grounded 
in irrigation, "hydraulic societies" as he called them, are necessarily j 
despotic and must necessarily have the kinds of social and political 
properties that earlier writers had associated with Oriental despotism. The 
same is true of societies that somehow acquire-at-a-distance the character- 
istics of hydraulic societies, by diffusion. (Hence, according to Wittfogel, 
nonhydraulic Soviet Russia became despotic.) Wittfogel's reasoning was 
environmentalistic, in a manner less ignorant of physical geography than 
Marx and Weber but nonetheless quite naive. Wittfogel believed that 
irrigating a tract of land necessarily, deterministically, increases its produc- 
tivity. Some societies will thus choose to adopt irrigated agriculture, and so 
the great river valleys of Asia were occupied. But, according to Wittfogel, 


irrigation requires major public works for the creation and maintenance of 
canals, and hence requires a command-type political structure — he says 
this was the origin of the state as a political form — which also functions to 
control the distribution of water. 

Thus hydraulic societies are necessarily despotic. There are a number 
of fallacies in this argument, as many scholars have pointed out. Three of 
the fallacies concern the environmental proposition, the idea that 
irrigation necessarily increases productivity massively, and therefore leads 
to the development of complex social stratification, the state, and so on. 
First fallacy: irrigation increases productivity substantially only when the 
ecologically limiting factor on crop growth is lack of water; but quite 
often — in Asia as elsewhere — this is not the case. This means that the 
elaboration of great irrigation systems is not a natural response to the 
environment. Rather, a small-scale irrigation system in a river-valley can 
become enlarged into the great system as an effect, not a cause, of political 
and social inequality: pressure to deliver surplus pushes the process, 
enlarges the irrigation network, and leads, logically, to ever greater 
inequality. In other words, the large irrigation systems are preceded by, 
and explained by, existing despotism or social complexity, not by 
environmental mandates. (Wittfogel argues in roughly the opposite 
direction: the need to irrigate in a dry region leads a society to develop 
coercive command structures to manage the irrigation system, and thence 
leads to class oppression and the state — and despotic Oriental civiliza- 
tion.) The one ecological generalization that makes undoubted sense is 
the correlation of land productivity with population size and density, 
which is basic to the elaboration of social hierarchies and such things as 
religious ceremonial centers and states. But irrigation does not, magically, 
make land productive. Some land is highly productive without it. In the 
I classical Mesopotamian and Nile cases we do not know whether the 
ruling classes forced increases in productivity, and this created the large 
irrigation systems, or whether the process worked the other way around. 
The second fallacy is the belief that the irrigation of truly dry river valleys 
made these valleys immensely productive, overall. Irrigation allowed 
agriculture to be practiced in lands otherwise desertic, but water was 
always in short supply and we know very little about crop yields. What we 
do know is that the really high productivity, and large social entities (in 
terms of population size as well as density), were found in wetter regions, 
mainly rice-farming regions, where elaborate irrigation systems usually 
were unnecessary for agriculture (and sometimes rainwater alone filled 
the paddies, as on the lower Irrawaddy plain and part of northern Luzon). 
Third fallacy: There is good reason to believe that some of the oldest 
civilizations were grounded not in irrigation, but in drainage, an 


ecological response that does not ordinarily involve large-scale water- 
works. Drainage systems seem to have preceded irrigation in the earliest 
Mesoamerican civilizations. It is quite possible that the earliest Eastern 
Hemisphere irrigation systems, in such places as the Nile, the 
Tigris-Euphrates, the Indus, the Wei, the Yellow, the Niger, etc., were 
originally drainage systems, opening up swampy riverine regions and 
perhaps elaborating polities long before the societies became committed, 
to major engineering works and so became "hydraulic." 79 

Wittfogel's environmentalistic argument, bringing down to our own 
time the old ideas of Marx and Engels about aridity, irrigation, despotism, 
and stagnation, juxtaposed with Weber's arguments about the difference 
between Oriental despotism and the rest, is seminal for many present-day 
European miracle historians, although most of them modify Wittfogel's 
theory in important ways. The essential concept is the notion of hydraulic 
society, explicitly or implicitly seen as a natural product of arid Asian 
river valleys (and the Nile). The way this leads to "miracle" arguments in 
the writings of such historians as Eric L. Jones, Michael Mann, and John 
Hall deserves a moment's attention. 

Eric L. Jones, in The European Miracle, lays stress on what he 
conceives to be the fundamental difference between "rainfall-farming" 
societies of Europe and irrigating societies of Asia. Wittfogel, he says, was 
essentially right. Irrigating societies suffered the "political consequences 
of a society with a huge, manipulated peasant mass." 

European agricultural society was able to avoid a comparable history of 
authoritarianism — a kind of political infantilism — by virtue of an open- 
ended productive environment of forest land and rainfall farming. 80 

Jones then adds to all of this his theory that farmers who work in warm 
standing water become diseased — a fallacy, as we saw above, that confuses 
the consequences of poverty with those of ecological settings. 

The fairy tale (for it is that) which associates marvelous social 
consequences with "rainfall farming" of the European variety will claim 
our attention shortly. Here it should simply be noted that all of the ' 
supposedly dire effects that Jones — like Wittfogel before him — attributes 
to irrigation societies are, in point of fact, the normal attributes of ancient 
class society and ancient civilization. That is, when these civilizations 
emerge, we find, as part of the process, reduction in peasant freedom, 
recruiting of masses of people for various purposes, and the like. The 
romantic image of free peasants is an image drawn from preserfdom, 
prefeudal times. After Franco-Roman colonization European peasants 
were as unfree as any peasants of the Asian river valleys or anywhere else. 


And of course rainfall farming, along with forested frontiers, was 
characteristic of much of Asia. 

John A. Hall, in Powers and Liberties: The Causes and Consequences of 
the Rise of the West, wants to distance himself from Wittfogel's "fantasy" 
(as he calls it) about the inherently despotic nature of Oriental society. 
He then promptly absorbs a good part of Wittfogel's theory into his own 
formulation of reasons for the European "miracle." Hall, like most miracle 

• theorists, tries to make use of the greatest possible range of traditional 
arguments for the miracle, then pushes certain arguments forward as 
supposedly the most important ones. He thinks that political forces and 

■ Malthusian demographic forces are the most important, although he sees 
as a deeper force the Weberian notion of European "rationality." Hall 
| does not accept the formula that leads to the generalization that Oriental 
, ; states were despotic. No, he says, they were arbitrary, cruel, and unwilling 
| or unable to encourage economic development, and they held Oriental 
society stagnant (or, much the same thing, going through repetitive 
cycles). But they were not despotic. By this he means that Oriental states 
were not truly strong, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. We 
will see, shortly, how he says that medieval European states had some sort 
of inner strength, an organic quality, with progressive change somehow 
teleologically prefigured in their medieval form. So, according to Hall, 
there was Oriental despotism but the despots were weak. 81 Hall then 
f introduces irrigation as another independent factor. 

[In Europe] there was no need for irrigation. It is quite likely that this 
encouraged, or at least allowed for, a decentred agricultural civilization 
based on individual initiative." 82 

Thus a "need" for irrigation in Asia, which must have been an 
environmental need. Thus, the old Wittfogelian equation of irrigation 

I with despotism (as against "individual initiative"). Then Hall moves to 

si other factors on his very long list. 

Michael Mann is another contemporary theorist of the "European 
miracle," and he too has a long laundry list of factors which, he thinks, 
contributed to the miracle. 83 He tends to emphasize the importance of 

• ancient Europe's acquisition of political and especially military power. 
Mann takes pains to distance himself from Wittfogel, but in the end he 
incorporates most of Wittfogel's model — perhaps I should call it the 
Marx- Weber- Wittfogel model — into his own theory. Like Marx, Weber, 
Wittfogel, Jones, and Hall, he accepts the characterization of ancient 
Oriental societies (from Egypt to China) as unfree and unprogressive. But 
he points out that the despotisms did not extend to true large-scale 


politicomilitary power. And the ancient Oriental civilizations, although 
they were rooted in irrigation agriculture, also made use of other forms of 
resource use in areas adjoining the river valleys. Mainly for these reasons, 
Mann claims that Wittfogel "overextended his model." 84 Ancient irrigat- 
ing societies were despotic but they were not powerful, and this, for Mann, 
is what counts. Mann then rephrases the model and puts it, more or less 
entire, into his own theory. The distinction that counts is indeed, he says, 
the one between "irrigating" and "rainfall" farming societies. Asian 
societies are sweepingly categorized as the former, European societies as 
the latter. According to Mann, the fact that European farmers, starting 
with the ancient Greeks, used iron plows and farmed unirrigated ("rain- 
fall") land, is the one most fundamental reasons that Europe forged ahead 
of Asia and North Africa. This was the first great miracle. It put Europe 
ahead of all other areas, and Europe has remained ahead ever since. 

Here, in brief, is Mann's argument. We start with the ancient Near' 
Eastern civilizations, grounded mainly in irrigation. Conceding that 
irrigation was the innovation that caused these civilizations to rise in the 
first place, Mann argues that the irrigation base somehow "caged," or 
confined, the population; this metaphor is meant to convey the idea that 
these people are unfree, and also in some sense constrained from further 
social progress. (It is a metaphor and not an argument.) Around 1800 B.C., 
says Mann, "the Middle Eastern empires of domination were shaken by 
two immense challenges . . . from the north," from Indo-European invad- 
ers — this seems to be a version of the discredited "Aryan migrations" 
theory — who brought two revolutions with them, based in charioteer 
warfare and the use of iron tools and particularly iron plows. The "balance 
of power now shifted northward." 85 Mann concedes in passing that these 
northern folk did not actually invent chariot warfare and ironworking 
(which came perhaps from Anatolia), but he passes without pause (or 
logic) to the thesis that the northern peoples, Indo-Europeans, acquired 
dominance in politicomilitary terms and in terms of productive power. 
From this point forward, Mann contrasts two civilizations, the "irrigating" 
ones of the Middle East and the iron-plow-using, rainwater-farming 
peoples of the north — Greece and, broadly, Europe. Mainly because the 
Europeans were iron-plow-rainfall-farming peoples, they acquired, ini- 
tially in Greece, modern civilization, including democracy, classes, private 
(more or less) property, science, and a respect for human reason. 86 Why? 
The centerpiece of the model is the image of an individual peasant- 
farming family which is fundamentally independent. It gets its water from 
the skies, not from a despotically managed irrigation system. Iron, says 
Mann, is abundant, so the peasant farmer does not depend upon cities and 
long-distance trade networks to acquire iron for plows and axes. This 


independent peasant, a true yeoman farmer (as Weber also had said), is the 
prototypical democratic, civilized, energetic, forward-looking European. 

None of this makes sense. To begin with, it is geographically absurd 
to imagine that the Middle East was a region without plow agriculture, one 
basically of irrigated river-valley populations. Plows were used in irrigated 
farming. Rainfall-based farming was dominant, not in Egypt and Mesopo- 
tamia, but in most of the Levant, Anatolia, Iran, and of course much of 
Asia farther east, not to mention Africa. Iron working was not invented by 
Europeans and was used as much by non-Europeans as by Europeans. The 
same is true of the iron plow, which was as important in early China, for 
instance, as in early Europe. 87 (It is an old myth that Indo-European 
speakers, Aryans, spread the use of the plow to, and only to, the regions 
they settled or conquered.) Workable-grade iron ore deposits are not as 
abundant as Mann thinks they are (except in certain special regions, such 
as some of the laterite deposits of the humid tropics). 

But the silliest part of Mann's thesis is the environmental determin- 
ism. We have an image of an arid region fit for nothing but irrigated 
farming, which is assumed to be a tether on the progress of civilization. We 
have an image of an open region of good soil, forested, in which iron-using 
peasant farmers not only produce an unmatched abundance but also 
acquire from their ecology a democratic, bold, bright, form of society 
I which marches forward then to modernity. Let me add just a word about 
each of these images. 

Irrigation, in the eyes of many miracle theorists, is somehow unpro- 
ductive. Jones, Mann, and others make the assertion that more food is 
produced per worker on rain-watered lands. This is not true. In fact, 
irrigation was developed to increase food production, whether or not the 
source of the process was the aspirations of village people themselves or the 
surplus requirements of a political or religious superstructure. When an 
irrigated district has reached the point where there is serious land shortage, 
that is, late in its social and geographic evolution (along one possible line 
of development), the productivity per person declines. This is obvious. It 
means, first of all, that farm workers spend more time during the year 
producing and have less time for nonfarming activities, including village 
cultural life and work on such things as monumental structures. Eventually 
this situation may lead to the collapse of the farming system, with 
salinization, and so on, and finally, perhaps, starvation. Contrast this now 
with nonirrigated agriculture. Normally, there is poorer nutrient status of 
soil (irrigation brings dissolved nutrients in the water, and alluvial soils 
tend to have good nutrient status). Normally, there is greater moisture 
deficit, given the dependence on unpredictable rains. Thus natural fertil- 
ity tends to be lower on nonirrigated land, all other things being equal 


(which they often are not). Now it is true that early iron-age farmers, 
clearing forested land and making new farms, achieved high production on 
this fresh land, but that phenomenon is transitory, and in any case it did 
not have much effect in the semi-arid valleys of Greece. Early European 
farmers tended in fact to settle on alluvial lands and lowland terraces, and 
quite early they were using irrigation and drainage — because it enhanced 
labor productivity. 

The notion that European agriculture was somehow conducive to 
independent living in a way contrasted with Asian agriculture is another 
part of this myth. Early European farmers were not to any great extent, as 
Mann depicts them, living in isolation from one another, surrounded by 
forest. In the cases where they did live this way it was, again, a frontier 
phenomenon, in Asia as well as Europe. Farmers mostly lived in social 
aggregates, villages, large or small, compact or linear, depending upon 
many circumstances. There is no reason to doubt that the upland farming 
communities of Asia were quite similar to those in Europe. We return to 
this matter later in the chapter when we discuss the myth of the unique 
European family. For now I will simply categorize as mythic the idea that 
early European agricultural communities were somehow more individual- 
istic, more independent-minded, more progressive than were communities 

The most fundamental error made by the nineteenth-century think- 
ers and Weber and now mechanically repeated by historians such as Jones, 
Hall, and Mann, is to believe, or assume, that one type of environment 
produces a particular type of society and the latter then persists down 
through history. You simply cannot contrast the very ancient irrigating 
civilizations of Asia and North Africa with the later nonirrigating farming 
civilizations of Europe — or indeed of Asia — and then suppose that two 
contrasting civilizational types have been, thereby, created so as to remain 
in place down through history. Culture changes. Farmers move from one 
environment to another. In many places farmers practice both irrigation 
and nonirrigated agriculture on different soil types when appropriate land 
is available to them. 88 Thus the theory which asserts that arid Asian 
agricultural civilization produces a stagnant, despotic form of society down 
through later times, one which will not develop toward modernity, is 
purely a myth. 

Temperate Europe 

We have already seen how historians constructed a mythic model of 
"rainfall-farming" European society, supposing that rainfall brings 
benefits not associated with irrigation and that Europeans alone, in their 
hemisphere, practice "rainfall farming." Historians like Mann, Jones, and 


Hall carry the argument farther along. Europe's rainfall-based farming, 
combined with Europe's supposedly fine and fertile soils, produced an 
environmental basis for agricultural production unmatched elsewhere. 
Although these historians give a lot of credit to the supposedly uniquely 
rational, inventive, European mind, they give much of the credit to 
Europe's natural environment. 

For example, Michael Mann draws a picture of a steady northwest- 
ward movement of European history — what we described in Chapter 1 as 
an Orient Express model — which he sees as an essential continuance 
down into the Middle Ages of the northwestward trajectory of that 
individualistic, creative, bumptious peasant society which, he thinks, 
emerged in the Iron Age with the uniquely European marriage of farming, 
iron, and rain-watered land. His model of the evolution of Europe's 
society (its "miracle") is much more complex than this, but a key part of 
that model is the inexorable, steady, historically pregnant geographical 
movement — what he calls a northwestward "drift," with a permanent 
northwest "leading edge." Eschewing philosophical determinism, he 
nonetheless gives the whole process a strongly Hegelian, teleological 
flavor. 89 One of two main reasons for this northwestward movement is the 
beckoningly fine environment of northwest Europe. And the main reason 
why this environment is so fine is its "deeper, wetter, more fertile soils." 90 

John Hall, similarly, extols the "northern European clay soils," 91 
northwest Europe's "deep and productive clay soils fed by rainfall" 
("There was no need for irrigation"). 92 Eric L. Jones, in The European 
Miracle, makes much the same claim, if slightly qualified. He writes of 
Europe's "open-ended productive environment of forest land and rainfall 
farming," 93 of Europe's "High, even rainfall and passable summers." 94 
Jones (unlike Mann and Hall) recognizes the fact that Asian land 
supports a higher farming population, with the implication that the land 
is more productive, but he merely notes that Europe's productive land 
comes in smaller, separated regions, and then he gives us one of the myths 
■ of Oriental despotism: 

The very impracticability of hydraulic agriculture freed a fraction of 
European energies for other purposes. The rainfall farmers of Europe might 
be fewer in number than the farmers of China and India, but the former 
spent less time on all aspects of farmwork than the latter spent on water 
control work. 95 

The implication, of course, is that European peasant farmers didn't have 
to spend much time at farm work in order to satisfy their needs and their 
quota of surplus, whereas Asians worked much harder for the same 
product. This is plainly absurd unless we abandon historical method and 


try to compare Asian peasants under modern conditions of extreme land 
shortage with ancient European frontier conditions or modern European 
capitalist farmers. Stated differently, this makes no sense in terms of 
actual agricultural technique — irrigation is intended to increase produc- 
tivity per worker, and usually does so — and in terms of any model of the 
historical European peasant as poor, oppressed, and overburdened. 

The "wet soils" of which these historians speak are usually 
excessively wet: acidic podzols and gleys that are difficult to work and 
infertile until heavily manured. The "high, even rainfall and passable 
summers" are in fact a climate so wet that solar energy is often severely 
limited, grain crops sometimes cannot do well (recall how important was 
the post-1492 introduction of the potato), and soils do not dry out until 
late in spring, if at all. I do not want to caricature the situation. It is merely 
the case that northwest European soils, across their entire range, of 
variability, are not superior to the soils of many other regions. In 
ecological terms, the lands of warmer, drier regions that have either good 
rainfall regimes or possibilities for irrigation or drainage tend to be rather , 
higher in productivity. My point is more limited. There is nothing about ' 
Europe's agricultural environment that explains the so-called miracle, or 
that might lead one to believe (as the authors I have cited believe) that 
European history throughout its course has been favored over Asian 
history by the European agricultural environment. 

Europe's supposed environmental superiority is by no means limited 
to farming. I will close our discussion of environmentalism by briefly 
commenting on four other comparative judgments which are routinely 
made by present historians of the European "miracle." 

First is the classical "capes and bays" argument, familiar to most 
European and Anglo-American schoolchildren. Supposedly, Europe's 
configuration of peninsulas and bays, and Europe's possession of navigable 
rivers, gave this continent a natural basis for communication, trade, and 
accessibility denied to other continents. This, then, is supposed to have 
had a lot to do with the rise of markets and eventually capitalism in 
Europe. 96 Part of the argument, like the emperor's clothes, is transparently 
false when looked at directly. For instance, accessibility by sea along the 
coasts of the Indian Ocean and much of the South China Sea was 
considerably easier in the Middle Ages than it was in Atlantic Europe. (If 
monsoonal wind patterns posed a problem in the Indian Ocean, storms 
posed a greater problem in the North Atlantic.) Trading cities dotted the 
Indian coast, and trading vessels plied up and down this coast, and on to 
Indonesia and Arabia, carrying bulk commodities like rice and iron as 
well as high-value goods, long before Italian galleys inaugurated a regular 
commodity trade between the Mediterranean and the northwest 


Atlantic. I do not belittle the great seamanship of the Atlantic fishermen, 
the Iceland traders, and the Hanseatic League when I note, simply, that 
other regions were using the sea as effectively as the Europeans were at 
comparable times. 

As to rivers, Europe's endowment of navigable rivers is impressive 
but not unique. It is not better than India's and China's. Interisland 
navigation in insular Southeast Asia was much easier than was navigation 
up and down the Rhine, say, or the Danube. Again it is a matter simply 
of reducing comparisons to reality. The "capes and bays" errors are 
normally followed by another error: the idea that Europe had, in early 
times, an advantage over civilizations that had to transport commodities 
overland. Many of the "miracle" historians repeat the theory that 
overland transport necessarily was much more costly than water transport. 
This is in fact a multiplicity of comparisons. When Mann and others 
quote the old formulas about draft animals consuming their weight in 
fodder over a limited distance (some say this takes place within 100-150 
km), they ignore the fact that most draft animals graze or browse along the 
way: hence the great Inner- Asian Silk Road and the Sudanic caravans are 
easily comprehensible. 97 Canals in China were much more effective than 
circuitous coastal shipping routes in Europe. And water transport — 
particularly upwind and upriver — may not have had advantages over land 
transport 1,000 or so years ago. 

Eric L. Jones, in The European Miracle, makes the large claim that 
Asia suffered so much more than Europe from natural disasters of all sorts 
that Asian development was strongly inhibited by this presumed fact. 98 
He carries the argument to the point of claiming that the risk of natural 
disaster was so high as to frighten ordinary people into unusual 
demographic behavior, to close off trade possibilities, and more. Setting 
aside the fact that we have very little historical data on this subject, the 
main error is a simple matter of scale. Jones's "Europe" is really West and 
Central Europe. This region is roughly the size of the Indian subcontinent 
and perhaps one-fourth the size of the settled portion of Asia. So it might 
well have one-fourth as many natural disasters, ceteris paribus. It is true 
that floods are more serious in regions where people farm river valleys, but 
populations make adjustments which keep this one risk small enough so 
that it does not affect long-term development, and I suspect that 
winter- weather dangers in rural Europe were as great as flood risk in Asia, 
on a per capita basis. Hurricanes are no worse than the worst North 
Atlantic winter storms. The theory as a whole is unsupported by evidence 
and empty of credibility as an argument for the European "miracle." 

The miracle historians point repeatedly to Europe's environmental 
differentiation, claiming that this leads to a unique potential for 


interregional trade and thus, again, for capitalism." One need merely 
note that Europe does not possess an unusually large range of 
environments, and natural products, by comparison with other regions of 
comparable size. China, for instance, has roughly the same range of 
midlatitude environments plus a tropical south coast. 

The last environmentalistic fable to be discussed here is the claim 
that Europe's topographic differentiation into many small "core regions," 
separated by mountains and forests, somehow led to a number of 
supposedly unique features of ancient and medieval European society, 
including even the development of a unique trading system and a unique 
system of moderate-sized states and the many benefits supposedly deriving 
therefrom. Since this issue ties in with the parts of the "miracle" literature 
that concern Europe's supposed uniqueness in economic and political 
development, I will postpone discussing the geography of the matter until 
later in this chapter. Suffice it to say now that this idea of "cores" is partly 
a myth, and insofar as it is valid the same sorts of "cores" can be found in 
other continents. 


We turn now to the theories about Europe's historical superiority or 
priority — Europe's "miracle" — which ground themselves, not in biology, 
not in environment, but in culture. First I will deal with theories which 
start from a conception of the superior "rationality" of Europeans. 
"Rationality" in such theories embraces many psychological attributes, 
always including inventiveness and innovativeness (or progressiveness), 
usually a capacity for abstract thought, and often a certain ability to make 
moral or ethical judgments. The issue is not whether such things are or are 
not fundamental causes in history; the issue is whether Europeans had 
more rationality, or higher rationality, than every other human commu- 
nity, and whether this was the principal reason, or at any rate one of the 
principal reasons, for the unique rise of Europe. The plain assertion that 
Europeans are smarter than everyone else seems to have a certain antique 
or Victorian ring to it, but this is deceptive: theories about "Western 
rationality" and the like are just as important today as they were for prior 
generations of scholars. Sometimes they are difficult to identify as 
rationality theories because they display other plumage. An explanation 
may focus on, say, technology, arguing that European technological 
innovations produced various forward movements in European history; 
looked at closely, however, the technological explanation usually 
dissolves into a theory about the inventiveness of Europeans, that is, their 
rationality. By the same token, an explanation may start with the state, or 
free markets, or the family, but usually (not always) it derives such 


structures from the more basic trait, rationality. Sometimes it works the 
other way around. Classical racist theories were rationality theories: to be 
white is to be more intelligent. Some (not all) Marxist theories are 
rationality theories: the defeat of feudalism released creative energies 
which then led to technological innovation, etc. Another complication 
is that superior rationality may be posited just for one crucial period and 
place, a magic key that started the whole process: Periclean Athens, 
Gutenberg's workshop, etc. I will try to sort these matters out by dealing 
first with the category "rationality theories" as such, then turning to other 
sorts of theories, technological and institutional, some of which are also 
rooted in the idea of European rationality. 

The Rationality Doctrine 

At the beginning of this century most European scholars accepted the 
basic proposition that Europeans are more rational than non-Europeans. 
This was explained by a great variety of competing theories, biological 
racism being perhaps the most prominent, but I suspect that most 
Europeans accepted the proposition as indisputably correct regardless of 
the explanation. It was simply obvious that European countries had 
attained a higher level of wealth and civilization than other countries and 
had done so on their own, mainly through invention, innovation, and 
creativity. Europeans also now controlled the entire world and this, too, 
had to reflect some intellectual and probably also moral superiority. This 
was the heyday of the doctrine of classical diffusionism (discussed in 
Chapter 1), and few people doubted the doctrine's basic propositions: 
Europe develops; non-Europe does not develop or does so more slowly; 
Europe's development is based ultimately in some intellectual or spiritual 
principle; the normal and natural way for non-Europe to modernize and 
progress is by receiving the diffusion of rational European ideas, brought 
by European colonial administrators, settlers, planters, missionaries, and 
purveyors of commodities. 

By this time most European thinkers had come to accept the 
doctrine of "the psychic unity of mankind," at least to the extent of 
agreeing that all of humanity shares a common ability to progress toward 
modernity. This doctrine crystallized into a theory, widely though not 
universally accepted in the early part of this century, that can be called 
the dualistic-developmental conception of human rationality. The 
elementary dualism was a distinction between the mentality of child and 
that of adult. The human mind has developed from a prehistoric 
condition which was mental childhood. European history is either to be 
explained as the fruit of human mental development or has been 


intimately accompanied by such mental development, in a process that 
was fundamentally the same as the psychological development from 
childhood to adulthood. Europeans became more rational as history 
progressed, just as children acquire rationality in the course of 
ontogenetic development. Ancient people had been not merely less 
intelligent but also much more governed by emotions and passions than 
by intellect, just as is the case with modern children. With some 
modification, the same was thought to be the case for modern European 
women, who were less intelligent and more governed by emotion than 
men, that is, they were less rational than men. But women, too, would 
experience mental development, and would eventually be rational 
enough to vote, hold public office, etc. 

Non-Europeans, within the same theory, were seen as psychically 
undeveloped, as more or less childlike. But, given the psychic unity of 
mankind, non-Europeans could of course be brought to adulthood, to 
rationality, to modernity, through a set of learning experiences, mainly 
colonial. (The phrase "colonial tutelage" was a signature of the doctrine, 
and this conception is encountered in most history and geography 
textbooks of the time.) It was not simply a case of "the natives are like 
children." The idea of non-European nonrationality was a definite, 
putatively scientific principle, widely accepted: non-Europeans think 
somewhat like children, and will be led toward adulthood by Europeans. 
Non-Europeans were of course graded. "Savages" were mental children 
without qualification. Problematic peoples, like the Indians, Ottomans, 
and Chinese, were thought to be childlike in some respects and not in 
others. Indeed they were governed by emotion and passion much more 
than Europeans. (Colonial revolts were obviously irrational — were 
outbursts of childlike emotion.) As far as scientific and abstract 
philosophical thinking was concerned, the people of these cultures were 
clearly not up to full adult standards, but in some respects, notably in arts 
and crafts, they were perhaps gifted adolescents. 

So we have a model which has, as its centerpiece, the Rational 
Modern Adult European Man. History is his progression to mental 
adulthood. He is contrasted with ancient European man; with modern 
European children; with modern European women; with modern 
non-Europeans. The contrast was often extended, also, to psychotics; in 
some schools of they thought were explicitly seen as having a 
developmentally arrested mentality and this was indeed used as a 
therapeutic principle. 100 What needs to be emphasized is the fact that this 
was considered to be a scientific theory. Thus it was valid to exchange 
principles across these various dimensions of contrast. For our purposes, 
the most important of these principles was the attribution of mental 


development to European history and the attribution of mental 
nondevelopment to non-Europe, past and present; hence Europeans had 
naturally acquired a unique rationality. 

It would be wrong to reduce to caricature the scholarly theories of a 
few generations back, and the model I have just described looks, on the 
face of it, like a caricature. Most scholars did not literally believe, say, that 
the American Indian was a mental child, or that ontogenetic mental 
development exactly recapitulates the mental development of our species. 
But the model was a dominant force in European thought in certain 
precise ways. The equation of child, ancient, and non-European was 
explicitly accepted in nonscholarly discourse (newspapers, Tarzan novels, 
and so on). American educational policy toward Indians and other 
colonials was explicitly grounded in this model, even if it was a 
smoothed-down version of it. A very large number of writings in history, 
geography, and all of social science made use of one or another part of the 
model. And several very widely accepted theories were really forms of the 
same model. Three examples will be helpful. 

Most anthropologists accepted the idea that there are two distinct 
mental types, one being the so-called "primitive mind," the mind of tribal 
peoples just about everywhere (some added: peasants everywhere). The 
"primitive mind" was very explicitly described — the most famous descrip- 
tion is found in Levy-Bruhl's influential book, How Natives Think — as 
being incapable of higher theoretical and abstract ideas, as being emotion 
driven, and so on. 101 Some anthropologists opposed this notion (Boas, 
Radin, and Mead perhaps most notably 102 ); most anthropologists accepted 
it with some qualifications; some accepted it literally. Levy-Bruhl's rather 
stark form of the theory had great influence on psychologists and all of 
social science. Closely connected to this theory was the notion that there 
are "primitive languages," languages incapable of expressing higher theo- 
retical and abstract thought. This old notion (which had been used in one 
form by William von Humboldt) was joined to the proposition that people 
cannot think beyond the limitations of their natural language, and so a 
primitive language entails a primitive mind. 103 Beyond that, the old 
philological theory about the innate superiority of Indo-European lan- 
guages still had many adherents, and this theory extended the notion of 
primitive language to most of the non-European languages of the world. 
The third example is a broad family of theories in psychology that made 
use of the idea that mental development in the individual is homologous 
to mental development in the species, and that modem primitive peoples 
have the mentality of children and ancients, sometimes extending the 
concept to the putative psychological makeup (and limitations) of non- 
European peoples in general. In the twentieth century this theory received 


its most influential expression in the psychoanalytic viewpoint of Carl 
Jung and his followers. Jung swept broadly across non- Western cultures 
(Arabs, Indians, Africans, African-Americans, and others) declaring, 
basically, that only modern European man has fully developed an individ- 
ual consciousness, an ego, an ability to think, even an ability to conceive 
of himself as an individual separate from the external world. Only 
European man is rational. 10 4 

The doctrine went through some important changes as it became 
absorbed into the "modernization" paradigm, the body of ideas which, as 
we have seen, came to dominate European social thought in the 1950s 
and still does so to some extent today. "Colonial tutelage" gave way to 
"diffusion of modernizing innovations." Non-Europeans no longer were 
"natives," and no longer were described as "childlike." In place of the 
notions of "primitive mind" and "primitive language" came the notion of 
traditional mentality. Non-Europeans are "traditional" in two senses: they 
lack "modern cognitive abilities," that is, the ability to think theoretically 
and scientifically, and they lack "modern attitudes" of the sort that push 
a person to achieve higher things, to reject the old, and so on. 

This appears still to be the primitive mind, but there is an important 
diffetervce. "Traditional mvtvds" ate simply waiting to Vje awakened, to t>e 
modernized. The larger picture was one of a vast landscape of traditional 
societies, containing people with traditional mentalities, and moderniza- 
tion would set the drama into motion. Mentalities would change. Social 
structure would change. New ideas and technology would diffuse into the 
modernizing societies from the already-modernized European societies, 
and so on. Recall that the modernization doctrine is not only a concept of 
the spatial spread of European ideas, attitudes, and the like, in the 
present-day postcolonial world. It is also a historical concept: moderniza- 
tion as history. "Traditional society" and "traditional mentality" came to 
be used to describe early Europe, the rise of Europe was now seen as a 
modernization process, and the start of that process was a much debated 
matter of deciding when Europe began its "takeoff" — its rise from the level 
of traditionalism and toward modernity. History is appealed to for the basic 
causal principle: Europe modernized, and now non-Europe will follow — 
though not slavishly — in its path. We will come back to this point in a 
moment. First I want to comment on the main causal principles that are 
thought to lead in the other direction. I will show that schools have arisen 
in psychology, sociology, and other disciplines that claim to provide t 
scientific demonstrations as to what, exactly, is the nature of the "tradi- 
tional mind," and the output from these scholars tends, then, to seep back 
into history, where it finds its way into the newer writings about the 
European miracle. 


In psychology, the important figure is Jean Piaget. His basic theory of 
mental development postulated an invariant series of "stages" of develop- 
ment through which all children must progress. Piaget was influenced by 
LeVy-Bruhl and the primitive mind doctrine, and as late as 1971 he 
r thought that 

it is quite possible, and this is the impression we have from known 
ethnographical work, that in many societies, adult thought does not go 
beyond the level of "concrete" operations, and therefore does not reach 
that of propositional operations which develop between the ages of twelve 
and fifteen in our milieus. 105 

"Propositional operations" means, roughly, logic. "Concrete" is childish 
prelogical thought, unable to deal with the abstract and the theoretical. 
Now Piaget was a great psychologist, but he did not have, or claim to 
have, direct knowledge of non-European psychology. He was arguing 

i from the traditional dualistic-developmental model that equates the 
child and the primitive. (And he was about 30 years out of date as to 
ethnography.) But many of his disciples, seeking to connect their theory 
with the modernization doctrine, took up the theme and began to carry 
out research to find out whether non-Western people (particularly 
Africans) do, indeed, have inferior cognitive abilities. It is no 
oversimplification to say that virtually all of these studies made the same 
mistake and came up with the same, predictable conclusions. They used 

I the tests of cognitive ability that Piaget had used with European children 
and, scarcely modifying them, administered these tests to non-European 
children and adults and found, predictably, that these people do not have 
full adult cognitive abilities. By now the error has become well known, 
and most present-day Piagetian psychologists do not seem to assert that 

! non-Europeans are cognitively childlike. Along with the Piagetian 
studies of the 1960s and 1970s, there appeared, in this era, many studies 

' carried out by psychologists from other schools of thought (like the Heinz 

! Werner school) which took the old primitive-mind doctrine as fact, 106 
along with studies carried out by white South African psychologists 

j comparing white and black subjects, other Europeans studying other 
African populations, and a few Israeli psychologists comparing the 
cognitive abilities of Arabs and Jews. With few exceptions, the European 
psychologists found the non-European subjects to be deficient in 
cognitive ability, and so to be "traditional." 107 In nearly all of these 
studies the testing was such that the "natives" didn't really stand a chance 
because the tests were European, administered by Europeans or their 

. native assistants, in Europeanized settings. The error became so well 


known that the entire field of "cross-cultural psychology" gained a bad 
name — as an apologia for ethnocentrism — until, in the 1980s, it changed 
direction. The point is that while most cross-cultural psychologists today, 
apparently, deny that non-Europeans are less rational than Europeans, 
they established a body of publications that are still used by others to 
make the opposite point. 

The rationality doctrine was perhaps most influential in those parts 
of sociology and economics that were closest to the modernization 
doctrine, particularly among academics who were involved in making and 
implementing the policies being put into place in the 1950s and 1960s to 
develop the underdeveloped countries. As we saw in Chapter 1, this 
sphere of ideas was crucial to the politics of modernization for at least 
three reasons: First and most basic was the need to validate diffusionism. 
Second, development of the sort that involved only the spread of new 
ideas and new techniques was much cheaper, in principle, than 
development involving massive flows of capital, industrial development, 
and the like. And third, along the same lines, development at the level of 
ideas, of research, extension, education, and so on, was not threatening; it 
would not produce the dangers of revolution and counterrevolution 
implicit in efforts to change the relation of power groups, to effectuate 
land reform, and the like. For these reasons, scholars were encouraged, 
indeed were given lavish grants and were well paid, to produce analyses of 
modernization that would lead to workable policies for bringing about 
development mainly through an influence at the level of ideas. 

Everett Rogers, a rural sociologist; David McClelland, a social 
psychologist; and Everett Hagen, an economist, provided highly 
influential contributions that I will describe briefly and with some 
caricature. Rogers was one of the leaders in a movement to sort out 
peasant mentalities into those that are prodevelopment ("cosmopolitan") 
and those that are noninnovative and "laggard." The crucial notion was 
the idea of the diffusion of rationality into rural non-European 
communities. The key to development (with some qualification) was the 
transmittal of new ideas to innovative "adopters." The fact that most of 
the ideas were not, themselves, workable (thus were not rational), and 
that adoption of them would have required of peasants not more 
knowledge, but more power and landownership, was ignored. McClelland 
claimed that non- Western peoples in general have not modernized 
because they lack the proper "need-achievement" motivation. They will 
modernize when and if they acquire this need to achieve, which had been . 
of crucial importance in earlier European development, from ancient 
Greece on up. Hagen produced an elaborate theory, based in no evidence 
whatever, that non- Western peoples, and particularly peasants, have a 


traditional mentality that resists change of all sorts. The model starts with 
a mythic peasant unconscious mind that is uncreative, submissive to 
paternal authority (and therefore oppressive of innovative children), and 
unwilling to change. All three of these scholars, and dozens of their 
acolytes, produced a general model of peasant mentality as defective in 
both cognitive and attitudinal (affective) characteristics, but, of course, 
not hopelessly so. 108 One of many recent outgrowths of this doctrine is 
Stephen Marglin's theory of the Western mental "episteme," a marriage 
of the old "primitive mind" idea and the newer ideas about traditionalism, 
which argues, in essence, that the Western mind is, and historically has 
been, scientific, rational, and intellectually hardheaded — the "epis- 
teme" — while the non-Western mind is traditionally given to technique 
and art ("techne") but not to science. Marglin's new twist on this old 
doctrine is to say that some of the non- Western "techne" should be 
incorporated in development along with the Western "episteme" because 
"techne," less intellectual but more feeling, is less likely to destroy the 
natural environment and causes less psychic damage to non-Western 
people, a distinction rather like the older duality between scientific 
thought and emotion-laden concrete thought. 109 Marglin's ideas provide 
an example of much theorizing in the economic development world (like 
Hagen, he is a development economist) about non- Western nonrational- 


It would take us far afield to examine the parallel arguments in all 
the other fields of social thought. The following should suffice: In 
geography, the diffusion-of-innovative-ideas approach has been im- 
portant since the 1960s and remains so today. The same old assumptions 
about peasant and non-Western traditionalism are still dominant. Some 
geographers claim even that non-Europeans are mentally not capable of 
using all available means of coping with natural hazards like drought and 
hurricane. One geographer, Robert Sack, has come up with a classically 
Eurocentric theory about spatial cognition: most non- Western people 
(primitives and most peasants) cannot think in spatial terms the way 
modem Western adults can. Among the authorities he uses — the 
argument is from authority, not evidence — are Levy-Bruhl and Piaget. 110 
In the field of education in the United States the newer forms of the 
dualistic-developmental theory of (Western) rationality are highly 
influential in many areas, including testing. 111 In the field of philosophy, 
there is a strong relationship between the stream of ideas about 
rationality, discussed above, and the resurgence of mind-body dualism, 
such as one finds in the Cartesian and Kantian traditions and particularly 
in the modern neo-Kantians. 112 

I do not suggest that the doctrine of non- Western nonrationality is 


fully hegemonic in modern scholarship, or that the above formulations 
have not been challenged. In general, however, the doctrine remains 
somewhat dominant in all fields of thought except, perhaps, anthropology 
and economics. Anthropology in recent decades has, with some lapses, 
maintained quite firmly that primitive minds are not primitive. 113 And 
some schools of economics need the principle of universal economic 
rationality so badly, as axioms for their theories, that they are willing to 
concede rationality to everyone. 

Rationality and the European Miracle 

The idea of European rationality is often called "Weberian," because Max 
Weber made important use of the idea in various explanations for 
European social evolution and various negative judgments about the 
lesser rationality of other societies. The rationality doctrine was, however, 
widely held in early twentieth-century Europe when Weber's important 
writings on this subject were published. But he codified the traditional 
doctrine and added something of his own to it, so the doctrine can indeed 
be called Weberian from the present-day perspective. It is also Weberian 
in another and perhaps more important sense: Weber placed European 
social evolution in a framework emphasizing the modernization process, 
and contrasting Europe's modernization with the "traditionalism," as he 
sometimes called it, of Asian civilizations. When the modernization 
paradigm locked into place among scholars just after World War II, Max 
Weber was the most obvious, and most logical, source of basic sociological 
doctrine for the paradigm. From that time on, scholars who wrote about 
the rise of Europe and chose to emphasize the individual trait of 
rationality, or social-level traits and institutions which Weber had treated 
as primary (and, in the main, as consequences of European rationality), 
were Weberians to one degree or another (even if they rejected some parts 
of Weber's model). The importance of Weber for our discussion of 
present-day theories about the "European miracle," is the fact that the 
most influential, probably dominant, school of thought concerning the 
"miracle" today is more or less Weberian. Weber's views about rationality 
therefore require at least brief discussion. 

Weber analyzed Western capitalist society of the late nineteenth- to 
early twentieth-century epoch in meticulous detail and with great insight, 
although there were important limits to his insight. He held to the typical 
conceit of his time and place and class in thinking that contemporary 
European capitalism is the culmination of a process of social evolution 
that was, at root, an intellectual progression, an ascent of human 
"rationality," meaning intellect and ethics, from ancient to modern 


society. (He had doubts about the likelihood of further ascent in the 
future.) At each stage of that progression people invented new social 
forms, such as higher forms of the state, the legal system, the bureaucracy, 
the economy, the city, and so forth, but these forms were, basically, 
products of evolving rationality rather than primary causes of progress in 
their own right. But the march toward ever more rational society took 
place in Europe, among Europeans. Outside of the European tunnel of 
time, all societies were in varying degrees traditional and in varying 
degrees irrational. 

Weber said rather little about the question of why Europeans came 
to display this rationality in the first place, that is, as a basal cause. He 
invoked several factors, one of which, as we noted previously, was race 
and another, the natural environment. Others seem to lie deep within 
culture. Yet Weber rarely discussed causality at this basal level, that is, 
attempting to explain why Europeans have unique rationality, and have 
had it since a long time before the Protestant Reformation and 
modernity. 114 One reason seems to lie in his view of social causality, with 
ideas and values, and the evolution of ideas and values, treated as prime 
causes of social processes, social structures, and social change. Given this 
conception, he would not be expected to look for nonideological-level 
causes for ideas and values. Doubtless there were other reasons. 

Whatever Weber considered to have been the basic cause of the 
differences between rational, progressive European society and irrational, 
traditional Asian society (Africa and America were scarcely noticed), he 
delineated these supposed differences very carefully. The most crucial 
arguments are found in his General Economic History and The Protestant 
Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The development of rationality among 
Europeans — however that had happened — led to a special sort of 
"economic ethic," a body of values, aspirations, and logical thought 
processes that emerged primarily in connection with the Reformation 
(and particularly Puritanism) but which, more fundamentally, produced 
capitalism. The important point here is that basal rationality produced 
both the "economic ethic" of capitalism and the Protestant movement: 
Weber is not (as some think) explaining capitalism and modernity in 
terms narrowly of religion. He does invoke religion to explain many 
aspects of the supposed traditionalism of Asians, but here too a primordial 
irrationality is seen as underlying religion. (He writes, for instance, of the 
"magical traditionalism" of Indians and Chinese. 115 ) 

The superior rationality of Europeans produces other major 
historical differences between Europe and non-Europe. Europeans are 
basically freedom loving, not ground under by Oriental despotism; this 
devolves into a form of city that is much freer than the Asian city, the 


latter being conceived by Weber as (in essence) merely a physical entity 
wholly controlled by the overarching empire, and the former as a truly 
new form of society, emerging in the Middle Ages and inaugurating 
modernity. 116 (As we discuss in Chapter 3, Asian cities were not as Weber 
described them. Some were free city-states, others were virtually free 
under a loose imperial umbrella. European cities, on the other hand, were 
much less independent than Weber thought.) Landholding systems were 
also different because of differences in rationality: only in Europe, says 
Weber (here putting forward a purely traditional European view) does the 
concept of private property truly emerge. The feudal estate is almost 
genuinely private property. The Asian estate is seen as merely a temporary 
assignment of land as a source of revenue for dignitaries, a form of salary 
given for service and ordinarily returned to the state. But European feudal 
estates were also, legally and actually, granted on service tenure, and in 
both continents these sorts of estates tended in general to become 
hereditary and thus eventually private property (see Chapter 3). Of 
course, Weber talks about other supposed differences between Europe and 
non-Europe, but the examples given here will suffice to show his overall 

Weber did not originate most of these arguments, although he 
codified them and developed them in a brilliant way. Yet Weber is given 
credit overall, and "Weberianism" is now the most important form of 
theory in explaining the European "miracle." The basic form can be 
summarized very simply. Rationality is the causal root. The effect of 
differential rationality is, in Europe, permanent progress, modernization, 
and capitalism. In non-Europe it is stagnation, traditionalism, and various 
irrational cultural attributes such as superstition. The model here is simple 
diffusionism: rationality and therefore modernization are permanent in 
Europe. Non-Europe does not modernize except by the diffusion of these 
traits from Europe. 

The doctrine of "Western rationality" is widely used today in 
explanations for Europe's unique rise, its "miracle." No longer is the 
superior rationality of Europeans attributed, even implicitly, to racial 
superiority, but how the historians manage to assert the one without the 
other is not an easy question to answer. Generally, causality is consigned 
to the impenetrable mists of ancient history, with perhaps an occasional 
speculation about ancient free-living European peasants or the evils of 
Oriental despotism, or with a ritual citation of Max Weber. For many 
historians, I suspect, the idea of European rationality is simply axiomatic. 
Europeans, for whatever reason, are just built that way. 

Eric L. Jones dwells very heavily on rationality as an explanation for 


Europe's historical superiority in The European Miracle. His claim is that 
there is a fundamental lack of rationality among Asians and Africans. The 
assertions are laid on so thickly, and with so little attempt to account for 
this putative irrationality, that it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that 
Jones, perhaps alone among modern "miracle" historians, holds some 
deep prejudices. Africans are dismissed, in a brief discussion, as having 
had no significance in history. They are characterized in a way that 
suggests, not very subtly, that they are closer to the beasts than are other 

In Africa man adapted himself to nature. The hunter felt part of the 
ecosystem, not outside it looking in with wonder, and definitely not above 
it and superior. After all, there were large carnivores who sought man as a 
prey. The most evocative symbol of this ecological oneness may be the 
honey guides . . . birds commensal with man. They fly, chattering loudly, 
ahead of bands of hunters, leading them ... to the tree hives of wild bees 
and feeding on the wax after the men have broken open the hives. (154) 117 

;" This is a Tarzan image. Most Africans were farmers, not hunters (we 
discussed this previously). The scavenging house sparrow is also 
commensal with humans in the suburbs of London, but Jones speaks of 

. "commensalism" only for Africans. (Ethology, as we will see, is evoked 
somewhat similarly for Asians. 118 ) 

There was scant incentive or pressure for development or invention. . . . 
Any pressure . . . was apparently offset by the use of slaves instead of the 
improvement of methods. . . . Otherwise wealth was spent on luxury items. 
. . . [There was] pervasive insecurity as a result of conflict and slave-raiding. 

Africans thus were noninventive, were aggressive, were lovers of luxury, 
were slavers and slaves. And also hunters close to the beasts they hunted. 
So: it "is not clear what indigenous developments were possible" (156). 

Asians do not think logically. There is "relative absence of the 
empirical enquiry and criticism of the Graeco-Judeo-Christian tradition" 
(161 ), and "lack of a crisp tradition of logical debate," which may explain 
the "failure" of Asian science" (162). "The notion of a consensus in 
interpreting nature may have seemed absurd" (162) — that is, Asians may 
not even have had an ability to conceptualize scientific verification, to 
distinguish empirical truth from falsity. They were uncreative: "Asian 
institutions suppressed creativity or diverted it into producing voluptuous 
. luxuries" (231). 

Asians have attitudes and values that inhibit progress. "Oriental 


philosophies [emphasize] emotions, values and cosmologies," at the 
expense of empirical thought (161). Orientals are lazy (163). They (like 
Africans) have a "love of luxury" (170), and they love to buy things like 
"kingfisher feathers . . . precious stones . . . drugs no modern pharma- 
copeia would own" (164). They have a "servile spirit," their armies lack 
"tough" petty officers (167). They are, as a rule, introverted, inward 
looking; they are "increasingly immobile societies undergoing 'curious 
experiences,' " given to self-imposed "isolation" (170), lacking an urge to 
explore (168, 177, 203, 231). They are given to senseless warfare (169, 
188, 197), do not have a written legal system (164, 188, 197), and do not 
have a concept of political boundary (167, 194). There is much thievery 
and piracy (189, 199, 209, 229-30). 

In most judgments of this type (of which I have given only a sample), 
Jones is referring to Asians in general and through all times in their 
history. 119 Some judgments are more specific. Islamic society was for a 
time somewhat innovative, borrowing technology from other societies, 
and preserving ancient Greek sciences. (This is a standard Eurocentric 
belief: Arabs preserved Greek science during the Dark Ages and then 
handed it back to Europe for further development, something like an 
intellectual left-luggage office.) The Ottoman Empire (the single real 
example of Islamic culture discussed by Jones, with the imputation that it 
stands as symbol for Islam as a whole and at all times) stamped out original 
thought. It produced unreason, backwardness, and retrogression, a "mist 
of obscurantist thought" (183). Ottomans didn't even know "the 
elementary facts of geography" (184) and couldn't even make decent 
maps (179). (Jones himself doesn't know much about geography and 
maps.) Rulers were often "degenerates," "drunkards," "mental defec- 
tives," "lechers," ruling with despotism and terror (186-187), their 
"philosophy" being theft and despoilment, against which there was "no 
legal shield" (187-189). 

Indian society was socially and psychologically "frozen" (192), with 
values that were deleterious to economic progress. Religion was invoked 
to sanction all acts, but the advice of religious counsellors was "malicious 
or random" (195). The Mughal rulers were, like the Ottomans, 
degenerates, running society for their own benefit, given to "voluptuous 
selfishness," harems, jewels, menageries, intrigues, treason (196). The 
state was purely predatory. Technology was "almost stagnant," not even 
copying from abroad (199). "No written legal code existed," says Jones in 
a quite bizarre misstatement (197). 

China was technologically inventive and innovative until the early 
Middle Ages, when progress stopped. There was thereafter a "retreat" 
(203); some skills were even forgotten. Chinese became "inward-looking" 


(203, 216, 220). China "backed away" from technology, from trade, from 
exploration. Technological development stopped even in agriculture, and 
only the cultivation of new land, with irrational cutting of irreplaceable 
forests, and the fortunate, timely, arrival of New World crops such as 
maize and sweet potato, saved the Chinese temporarily from disaster, 
although cutting down these forests was "one of mankind's greatest acts of 
ecological stupidity," stupidity which led to "soil erosion, gullying, silting 
and floods" (213). (Apparently the deforestation of Europe and North 
American was not "stupid.") Peasants were given to "envy and suspicion" 
(206), were stupid as farmers (212-217), and were stupid also in preferring 
"maximal reproduction" over "affluence" (218). The state was despotic, 
a "revenue-pump" for the rulers, providing no services (206). There was 
(again) a love of luxury, an attitude of "empty cultural superiority" (205), 
a corrupt, venal, parasitic ruling class. Chinese had "anti-social customs" 
(7) and were diseased. 

Ethology, the science of comparative animal behavior, is invoked 
repeatedly by Jones in his characterization of Asians and Africans. 
Oriental courts were given to displays of "the dominance relationship" 
(109, 209). Multiple wives had "ethological significance," as also, 
perhaps, did the "amassing" of slaves for "display purposes." "Great 
attention was paid to submission symbols, kneeling, prostration, the 
kotow" (209). In India, a "similar calculus . . . underlay human 
demographic behavior and veneration of the cow" (19). Recall the 
"commensalism" in Africa. 

These beliefs about the intellectual and moral inferiority of 
non-Europeans are old colonial-era prejudices, which Jones merely 
recites. The fact that The European Miracle is taken seriously by some 
historians is partly, I think, a reflection of the degree to which these old 
prejudices still lurk within our scholarship as implicit beliefs. 

Many other historians of the "miracle" try to insert European 
rationality at or near the base of their explanatory theories. Michael 
Mann can be taken as a typical representative of the genre. We have 
already discussed his contrived little theory about the marvelous Iron Age 
Indo-Europeans of the northern forests, uniquely individualistic, aggres- 
sive, freedom loving (all notions from nineteenth-century and earlier 
scholarship, none grounded in solid evidence for Europe or, compara- 
tively, for non-Europe). Mann moves smoothly to ancient Greece, which 
he sees as the product of this earlier Indo-European root rationalism. The 
Greeks invented most things rational, from science to democracy to 
ethics (a respect for humanity). Other Mediterranean peoples contributed 
rather little by comparison with the rational Indo-Europeans who swept 
down from the north. (Even the Roman influence, which subjugated the 


European peasant, is seen as vaguely "un-European." 120 ) History then 
moves northwestward as northern Europeans clear the forest and move 
what Mann calls the "leading edge" of European society forward toward 
what seems to be its foreordained goal, Britain. 121 Early in the Middle 
Ages, around A.D. 800, a newer stage of rationality emerges, combining the 
old culture and the new Christianity. Europeans now demonstrate their 
"rational restlessness" and their unique inventiveness, producing a 
revolutionary agricultural system and much more. The explanation is the 
ancient rationality, the newer Christian rationality, and the marvelous 
European environment. 122 This, for Mann, is the kernel of the European 
miracle. The only part of this construct that requires further comment is 
the theory of a medieval technological revolution; this we discuss in the 
following section. 

Lynn White, Jr., contributed a very influential form of the 
rationality doctrine with his theory about the unique technological 
inventiveness of medieval Europeans, a theory we discuss in the next 
section. John Hall contributes another version, much like Mann's except 
for its emphasis on the invention of rational politics by Europeans and its 
tendency to follow Eric L. Jones in various negative judgments about 
Asian history. Space does not permit me to review the way some other 
present-day historians invoke, and use, the theory of Western rationality 
as grounding for their theories about the European miracle. I should 
simply note that some of them are Marxists and near-Marxists. Perry 
Anderson, for instance, argues from ancient Greek rationality to 
European medieval progress. So does M. I. Finley. Robert Brenner 
contributes a very different Marxist rationality theory: there was no 
rationality until, quite suddenly, capitalism appeared among the English 
yeoman farmers, who promptly became amazingly inventive and started a 
technological revolution that has not yet ended. 123 


Among all of the narrow-minded ways of looking at history, technological 
determinism is the one most congenial to Eurocentric tunnel vision. It 
has the appearance, the illusion, of cold-blooded scientific fact. "X was 
invented here, on this date, and produced these effects." In talking about 
matters of technology, one can deny that ethnocentrism enters the 
picture: "this is hard fact, indisputable." And the significance of 
technology seems equally indisputable: a new toot does produce more 
food, a new weapon more casualties, whereas a new social form might have 
historical significance; then again, it might not. But technological 
determinism gets its greatest strength from the error known as 


"telescoping history." When we travel, mentally, back to medieval 
Europe, we pass backward through the eras in which Europeans clearly 
were technologically superior to everyone else, and so we tend to expect 
that superiority to have been the state of things at all prior times. But 
Europe advanced technologically beyond Asia and Africa mainly after 
the beginning of the industrial revolution. Europe did not even begin to 
forge ahead of other civilizations in technology or science until the 
seventeenth century or even later. By telescoping history we imbue the 
Middle Ages with the marvelous technological attributes of modern 
Europe. It is then but a small step to the conclusion that, since technology 
is so obviously a powerful cause in history, and since Europe has always 
been so technological, here is the root of the European miracle. 

But tools do not invent themselves or reproduce themselves. If you 
invoke technological determinism, you must not only show that the 
technology appeared and had such-and-such effects, you must also 
explain why it was invented, and by whom. In nearly all (I think) 
technologically deterministic arguments made as part of some explana- 
tion for Europe's historical progress, technological arguments end up 
being arguments about the inventors, not the inventions. They end up in 
some Weberian claim that Europeans are more inventive, innovative, 
"rational," than non-Europeans. Technological determinism then differs 
from other kinds of tunnel-historical theories mainly in its claim that 
rational Europeans moved their society forward by inventing new 
technology, rather than doing so by inventing new political systems, new 
forms of social organization, new religions, or whatever. 

Claims are made by Eurocentric historians that technology was a 
prime mover in all epochs from the post-Neolithic on down. Nowadays it 
would be hard to ignore the evidence that in ancient times the greatest 
technological innovations, in agriculture, transportation, and other 
spheres, entered Europe from the south and east, so technological 
arguments tend to begin with the Middle Ages. There are, however, 
exceptions. Michael Mann, as we noted previously, has revived the old 
notion that the invention of iron somehow revolutionized European 
peasant society in a way it did not do elsewhere, that it produced a 
wondrously inventive, acquisitive (etc.) type of society, rooted in 
iron-plowing Indo-European-speaking peasants, and he claims, in 
parallel, that Oriental despotisms of the ancient Middle East held back 
technological inventiveness, where peasants were supposedly held in 
tight control by the political system that irrigation technology necessi- 
tated. But this theory is contradicted by a great deal of evidence. So much 
is known about technological progress in the Middle East during this 
period (from the late Neolithic to the "Iron Age" and beyond) that the 


notion of noninventiveness is unreasonable. But iron working was not 
invented in Europe. Probably it came from tbe Middle East, but there are 
hints from farther afield (including West Africa). Plows were used in 
Middle Eastern agriculture, irrigated and nonirrigated, as well as in 
European agriculture. Plows may have been used earlier in China than in 
Europe. So the technological argument put forward by Mann (and others) 
is unsound and the psychological and social deductions are fallacious. 

Many other "miracle" historians are prepared to start with the 
ancient Greeks and define these folk as the original uniquely inventive 
Europeans, but the Greeks did not contribute more to technological 
progress than their neighbors did to the south and east, so arguments of 
this sort must revert to the abstract idea of "rationality," thus, of 
potentiality, not actuality, a point we have already discussed. The 
Romans, in turn, were moderately inventive, but so were their neighbors. 
In the European Dark Ages, as everyone agrees, technological progress 
was hardly impressive, and was in fact going on at a healthier pace in parts 
of Africa and Asia. I suspect that the majority of historians today are not 
willing to go along with Michael Mann and others who claim to find a 
unique technological progress in Europe prior to the Middle Ages, 
although this view was quite widespread until a few decades ago. Most 
would disagree with Eric L. Jones, in The European Miracle, that Europe 
has always been "a mutant civilization in its uninterrupted amassing of 
knowledge about technology" (p. 45), since there is nothing unusual 
about this process in human society. 

It is with the Middle Ages that technological arguments come to 
prominence. It is here that the notion of a technological "takeoff to 
modernity" is most frequently encountered among historians of the 
European "miracle." The common argument form is about as follows: 
Northern Europeans indeed were rather backward folk until late in the 
Dark Ages, the early Middle Ages, when a kind of awakening occurred, 
and northern Europeans now suddenly emerged as the people we 
know — the most dynamic, most progressive, most innovative, most 
rapidly rising (etc.) people in the world — and the key to this rise was a set 
of early medieval technological innovations, based mainly, these 
historians claim, on European inventions, neglecting non-Europe and 
thus presenting us with a typical sort of Eurocentric tunnel history. 

Lynn White, Jr., is an American historian whose book Medieval 
Technology and Social Change presents this kind of technologically 
deterministic tunnel-historical argument in perhaps its purest form. This 
book, published in 1962, has been highly influential; its arguments are 
built in to the theories of many "miracle" historians, including Mann, 
Jones, and Hall (who not only cite the book repeatedly in their writings 


but rely on it for many technological arguments they invoke in support of 
their theories). The book is an effort to show that technological 
invention and innovation was the central cause of the rise of Europe 
during the Middle Ages. White lists a series of supposedly European 
inventions, and shows, for each in turn, what marvelous effects it had on 
European history. Here, for starters, is an example. The early medieval 
invention of the iron stirrup had a "catalytic . . . influence on history." It 
permitted a new form of mounted warfare, created the phenomenon of 
the medieval knight, and produced feudalism (knights became manorial 
lords). And so, "The Man on Horseback, as we have known him during 
the past millennium, was made possible by the stirrup." 12 ^ 

But White's crucial arguments concern productive technology, and 
particularly agricultural technology. He claims that an agricultural 
revolution occurred in Europe (or rather in northern Europe) in the early 
Middle Ages, and this quite revolutionized European society and became 
a large part of the explanation for modernization and the rise of 
capitalism. He believes that three European inventions were the crux of 
the matter: the heavy plow, the horse collar (and therefore the use of 
horsepower), and the three-field rotation. 

The heavy plow, pulled by teams of (typically) eight oxen, is 
assigned, by White, a tentative central European origin in the sixth 
century; it then diffused quickly throughout northwestern Europe, and 
"does much to account for the bursting vitality of the Carolingian realm 
in the eighth century." 125 White is correct in calling attention, as others 
before him have done, to the importance of the heavy plow as an 
agricultural innovation in the wetter and colder parts of Europe. It was 
highly advantageous in opening the deep, heavy soils of the North 
European Plain and the deep-working of soil was critical in view of 
northern Europe's moist weather. It was in fact necessary for the areal 
spread of farming into some of the wetter soils. Therefore, the heavy plow 
had much to do with the overall increase in medieval agricultural 
production. But the heavy plow was not in fact invented in Europe in the 
Middle Ages. Plows pulled by teams of 24 oxen were used in northern 
India before the time of Christ. 126 Southern Europe used lighter plows, 
because the soils were generally lighter and drier, but the technology was 
not significantly different. It seems certain that the heavy plow was either 
diffused into northern Europe from elsewhere or was a local adaptation of 
a widely used tool-form. So this is not a European technological 
revolution. And the effects of the innovation in northern Europe 
probably should be attributed to the social forces that led to the 
introduction of the heavy plow, not to the technology itself. We know, 
for instance, that the growth of feudalism led to massive expansion of 


cultivation, partly at the incentive of the lords, who wished to increase 
their wealth and power by expanding their demesnes, partly as a reaction 
by peasants to the persistently increased demands from the lords for 
surplus product, increments of demand which could not be met without 
endangering the subsistence of the peasant family unless the peasants 
found a way to increase their total production. It appears that whatever 
historical effects are attributed by White to the plow should rather be 
attributed to feudalism as a social system. And the effects claimed by him 
are indeed quite miraculous. 

Thanks to the adoption of the heavy plow, says White, there was a 
tremendous growth in population. Then there was a changeover to the 
"open field" system of cultivation and this led, according to White, to the 
invention of "communal patterns" of human cooperation (as though 
communal life had not been known previously and was unknown 
elsewhere). This was a social revolution, a "reshaping of peasant society." 
It was "the essence of the manorial economy," ignoring the fact that the 
manors were owned by lords, not villagers. 127 More important still, there 
came then "a change [in] the northern peasants' attitude towards nature 
and thus our own" (my emphasis). Why? Because many families had to 
collaborate to mount one plow team, and so their allotments now were 
proportional to their social contribution, not to their needs. ("No more 
fundamental change in the idea of man's relation to the soil can be 
imagined: once man had been part of nature; now he became her 
exploiter." 128 ) 

But all of this is nonsense. Neither the technical arguments nor the 
social deductions make any sense. The Domesday Book gives household- 
to-plow-team ratios of between 2:3 and 3:5. 129 The open-field system 
seems to be quite old and was widespread in Europe and known in Asia 
and North Africa in early times. 130 Northern villages, using big teams and 
heavy plows, were no more cooperative than southern villages, using light 
plows. Communal ownership of fields in some societies implied greater 
cooperation than that found in the European open field system. The 
manorial economy was a social system, not a technological invention. 
And so on. 

White's second revolutionary advance is labelled "the discovery of 
horse-power." 131 Horses had been around for some time, of course. The 
essential innovation, for White, was the modern horse collar, which he 
thinks was probably developed in the Occident some time before the 
ninth century. According to White, the horse collar transformed 
agriculture and grain transport in northern Europe by permitting horses to 
replace oxen in pulling plows and wagons. Horses pull about the same 
weight as oxen but do so about 50% faster. From this fact White draws 


awesome conclusions. There was, he says, a large increase in agricultural 
production. Commerce became intensified because transport by horse- 
power was vastly cheaper than by ox power. Villages became much larger, 
almost townlike, because now there could be a larger radius of travel from 
home to field. The enlargement of villages yielded the "virtue of a more 
'urban' life," permitting the village to have a church, tavern, school (now 
boys "could learn their letters")- 132 And now there could be "news from 
distant parts." A transformation, overall, of profound importance. It 
"urbanized" the village, giving peasants the "psychological preparation" 
for "the change in Occidental culture from country to city." 133 All this 
and more from one innovation: the horse collar. 

But the horse collar was widespread in Eurasia from an early date, 
and probably was invented for harnessing not horses but camels. 134 And 
the presumption that horses held advantages over oxen in plowing and 
transport is widely disputed: the horse was more efficient, but more costly 
in upkeep, and generally required that cropland be devoted to feed crops. 
In England the horse did not replace the ox. Village size had nothing to 
do with horsepower. In many parts of the world where horses were not 
used, villages were much larger than they were in northern Europe. In 
countries like China, long-distance grain transport was often by canal, 
much more efficient than horse-drawn wagons. And so, again, neither the 
technical arguments nor the social deductions make any sense. 

Finally, White attributes equally marvelous effects to the introduc- 
tion of the three-field system. Part of this argument is familiar to every 
European schoolchild, who learned that the three-field rotation was a 
great advance over the older two-field system because (mainly) it reduced 
the proportion of the land in fallow from roughly 1/2 to 1/3. But White 
adds a cornucopia of additional blessings. Oats could now be planted 
widely, hence there was greater use of horsepower. In a section of Medieval 
Technology and Social Change, "The Three-Field Rotation and Improved 
Nutrition," he claims that the three-field system somehow permitted 
farmers now to grow legumes, and this vastly improved the European diet, 
which, in turn, "goes far towards explaining . . . the startling expansion of 
population, the growth and multiplication of cities, the rise of industrial 
production, the outreach of commerce, and the new exuberance of spirits 
which enlivened that age." In short, says Lynn White, Jr., "the Middle 
Ages were full of beans." 135 

But none of this (least of all the pun) can be taken seriously. There 
is no basis for White's argument that population was held down by an 
unbalanced diet (overloaded, he says, with carbohydrates, undersupplied 
with proteins). Farmers using the two-field system were not protein- 
starved, because legume cultivation long antedated the three-field system, 


grains also contained proteins, and fruits, animal products, and so on, 
were widely consumed. The three-field system was not a technological 
revolution. First of all, even more intensive rotations, including fallowless 
systems, were in use in many parts of the world long before the Middle 
Ages, and I suspect were common in parts of Europe (such as portions of 
the Po plain) where deep, nutrient-rich soils and good soil-water 
relations were found. Second, the two-field system was preferred, and was 
not supplanted, in many ecological situations, and in areas where fallow 
was needed for grazing. The picture is complex, but the generalization is 
clear: the three-field system was neither a technical revolution nor a 
fountainhead for social change. And it had close relatives in other 
continents, so it cannot be said to have been something uniquely 

In Medieval Technology and Social Change, White says little about the 
causes of the revolutionary technology. He does so elsewhere, however, 
and we find that his basic argument is really quite Weberian. 136 
Technological determinism dissolves into an ideological determinism, 
focused on the inventiveness — the rationality — of Europeans. This 
White attributes, basically, to religion: in part to "the Judeo-Christian 
teleology," and in larger part to "Western Christianity." The former 
underlies the European's unique "faith in perpetual progress," which leads 
to a faith in the virtues of inventiveness and technology. 137 The latter 
produces "an Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma 
of man's transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature" — that is, 
the separation of Man and Nature. To a Western Christian, nature is 
inert, valueless. It is blasphemy to "assume spirit in nature." 138 This gives 
the Western Christian a desire and right to manipulate, use, transform 
nature — to invent new technology. The errors here are glaring. First, 
there is ignorance of the teachings of religions other than Christianity. 
Second, White resurrects the ethnocentric myth that ancient pagans and 
followers of modern non-Christian religions somehow are unable to fully 
separate Man from Nature and share the primitive view that spirits reside 
in all things. Actually, medieval Christians did perceive spirit in all 
things. (It was God's way.) They did not treat humans as absolutely 
separate from nature. This dualism is a product of modern times, mainly 
of the commoditization of nature with the rise of capitalism. Dualism is a 
doctrine of post-Cartesian thought, not something residing deep in 
"Western Christianity." Medieval Christians believed that the world is 
one, a plenum, an uninterrupted chain of being. Medieval folk did not, in 
general, believe, as White claims they did, in "perpetual progress": they 
believed in the Fall, and they believed, on the whole, that Creation had 
been perfect and complete. White is simply telescoping history in order to 


claim that modern European attitudes about technology and technologi- 
cal change are actually basic and ancient attributes of the culture of 
Europeans, and only Europeans. His central thesis is basic tunnel history: 
Europeans are uniquely inventive, so they create unique technology, so 
they progress. 

I believe that all of the claims for European technological superiority 
in the Middle Ages can be countered, and eventually disproven, in much 
the same way. I think it will become clear that all of the civilizations of 
the hemisphere were inventing new technology and sharing it around; 
the "sharing" being the usual mechanisms of diffusion as they operated in 
two spheres of reality: agricultural techniques passed from farmer to 
farmer and other techniques (including some of those involved in 
commercial agriculture) moving through the mainly urban network of 
trade and transportation, or occasionally (as with some military 
technology) moving around the map along with conquest. Thus I see a 
rather even building up of technology in Europe, Africa, and Asia. It was 
only after 1492, with its utterly revolutionary consequences, that 
European technology acquired the beginning of an edge over Asian and 
African. Did medieval technological evolution produce, as cause, the 
major medieval social changes? I leave the answer to that question to 
others. My purpose in this book is not to defend any one theory of social 
change, merely to show that the processes were not uniquely European. 

In Chapter 3 I will discuss this matter further, showing how 
technological and economic surfaces emerged in medieval Europe, Africa, 
and Asia, and that processes of change in all three continents were — as to 
technology and economy — quite similar. 

Before we leave the subject of technology, something must be said 
about one fascinating issue: what I will call "the China formula." Since the 
end of World War II a great deal has become known about the history of 
technology in China, much of it through the work of Joseph Needham and 
his associates. 139 In prior times, the European miracle theorists were prone 
to ignore Chinese technological achievements. (Weber did so less than 
most. 1 "' 0 ) The usual pattern was to admit Chinese priority for some 
innovations but claim that, overall, the main technological advances took 
place in Europe and the Mediterranean. Where there were truly notable 
Chinese inventions, it was often claimed that the Chinese invented these 
things in a ludic vein whereas the Europeans put these things to work. 
(The paradigm, of course, is gunpowder, which the Chinese were supposed 
to have invented merely for fireworks.) One could bundle such proposi- 
tions into a classical diffusionist model of the Chinese: they had, in prior 
ages, progressed somewhat, but then they slowed to a stop, starting up 
again only when Europeans brought new ideas. 


It is now known beyond doubt that Chinese technology was on a par 
with that of the western part of the Old World, in some ways superior to it 
and in other ways inferior, during and before the Middle Ages. 141 This new 
knowledge is devastating to many of the European miracle theories, those 
that claim that ancient and medieval European progress in technology was 
a crucial cause of the "miracle." (If the Chinese were doing the same things 
at the same times, the argument about Europe's uniqueness just crumbles.) 
The result has been a general modification of many of the miracle theories 
to take these newly known facts into account. Typically, the formula runs 
as follows. 

1. "If indeed the development of technology in medieval China 
forces us to ask why China did not, then, have its own miracle, we can at 
least assert that China was the only civilization outside of Europe about 
which such questions arise." In other words, European superiority over 
everybody else is not put into doubt. This is convenient for those, for 
instance, who want to show that India, Africa, the Middle East, and so on, 
had no potential for development. 

2. "Whatever technological advances took place in medieval China, 
the important point is that they stopped." In the formula, this argument is 
expressed in different ways for different spheres of technology, but the 
central argument is fairly standard: something characteristic of Chinese 
medieval culture forced it to cease developing and so to stagnate. In other 
words, what is plugged in here is the old doctrine of Oriental stagnation. 
Most typically, Weber is used to make this point: just about all of the 
Weberian claims about the reasons for Chinese lack of progress are 
regularly paraded at this point. Some historians balk at using Weber's thin 
argument about the stultifying effect of Confucianism. Others prefer not 
to notice Weber's ethnocentrism when he describes Chinese personality 
traits. But Weber's arguments about the city, landowning, bureaucracy, 
and empire are still quite regularly employed. The Chinese city was not 
"free" and did not have a real bourgeoisie. Chinese landowning was not 
close to private property. The Chinese bureaucracy and the Chinese 
imperial state were not "rational" and so held back the society from 

One can respond to this argument in two steps. First, as Purcell has 
pointed out, the important question really is how and why these Chinese 
advances happened, not how and why they stopped happening (if indeed 
they did stop). In other words, historians must explain how China came to 
be such a technologically innovative society that it outstripped other 
civilizations in many spheres of technology for many centuries. Weber 


doesn't help in this process one bit. The whole Weberian scheme is an 
explanation for stagnation, and what we are talking about is impressive 
progress, not stagnation. 

The second step in the argument requires a focus on the precise period 
when, according to European miracle historians, the Chinese advance is 
supposed to have stopped. According to Elvin, broad-spectrum technical 
advances in China ended after the early fourteenth century. China at this 
time had perhaps the most advanced and most highly commercialized 
agriculture in the world. Chinese industrial technology was unexcelled in 
such fields as textile manufacture. Mechanical clocks were well known. 142 
Chinese merchant ships were plying throughout Southeast Asia and into 
the Indian ocean. Chinese guns were unexcelled. Canal technology was 
impressive. And so on. Broadly, the changes associated with the rise and 
travails of the Ming dynasty are associated with the slowing of technical 
advance, although advances continued to take place in some spheres of 
technology (shipbuilding, cannons, printing with movable metal type — 
invented circa 1400, probably in Korea 143 — and much more). But Europe 
at this time was not experiencing a major technical advance either. After 
1350 Europe stagnated both economically and technically. There is little 
evidence that European technology was advancing prior to 1492. The 
Renaissance was not a technological revolution, as historians have long 
realized. 144 After 1492 important European advances began again in some 
technical spheres (notably shipbuilding). Whether truly revolutionary 
technological change really began before the eighteenth century is a 
matter of contention among European historians. 

What does this say comparatively about China? It suggests that there 
is no problem of "stagnation." There was, instead, a slowing of progress 
during two centuries, in a scenario well known in all human cultures, 
because uneven progress is the norm. It suggests, rather, a problem that 
Third World historians focus some attention on but European historians 
tend to ignore. As a result of the European commercial expansion in the 
sixteenth century — we argue in this book that the year 1492 was the real 
birthdate of this process — aggressive European merchant communities 
began competing and trading with the Chinese in various places, notably 
Manila and some South China ports. Why did the Chinese merchant 
community not assert its dominance in this trade? Why did the commer- 
cial advantage steadily move in the direction of Europeans, not Chinese 
(and other Asians)? In other words, there is no stagnation to be explained. 
There is, rather, a problem as to how and why Europeans gained substantial 
control of long-distance trade in Asia after about 1600. Anticipating the 
discussion of later chapters, I will comment simply that this process does 
not reflect any internal cultural "blockages" in any Asian civilizations. 


Rather, it reflects the tremendously rapid increase in the profitability, 
scale, and organization of European enterprise overseas after 1492, which 
nobody else could really take advantage of, because of the constantly 
increasing flow of New World bullion into European mercantile coffers (a 
point we will discuss in some detail in Chapter 4). 

During the first half of the fifteenth century, a number of Chinese 
fleets of combined military, diplomatic, and merchant character were sent 
into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Some of the ships held 
hundreds of men; some were so large that vegetable gardens were placed on 
the decks. We will discuss the significance of these great voyages in the 
next chapter; my point now is to notice the way European miracle 
historians try to accommodate these facts into their theories about 
Chinese nonprogress. The standard comment is: "But they stopped." In 
fact, the last voyage did end around 1440. But the purposes of the voyages 
had been accomplished. Chinese merchant ships continued to trade in 
Southeast Asia. Nothing stopped. It is true that the emperors banned 
Chinese shipping for a time (mainly the early sixteenth century), but such 
bans were a means of extracting bribes (in effect easements) and they were 
not, in any case, enforced. For the "miracle" historians, the fact of the 
imperial ban is proof that China had stopped progressing, and that only 
Europe contained the potential for the "miracle." This does not accord 
with the facts. 

Chinese may have invented guns; in any case, they were as advanced 
in firearms technology as any other culture down to the end of the Middle 
Ages. Typical of the way European miracle historians deal with this sphere 
of technology (as with others) is Carlo Cipolla's account of the process in 
his well-known and influential book Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technologi- 
cal Innovation and the Early Phase of European Expansion, 1400-1700. He 
concedes, to begin with, that "Chinese guns were at least as good as 
Western guns, if not better, up to the beginning of the fifteenth cen- 
tury." 145 But when the Portuguese appeared off Canton and fired off their 
cannon in salute a century later (1517), the Chinese had, magically, 

The roar of European ordnance awoke Chinese ... to the frightening 
reality of a strange, alien people that unexpectedly had appeared along their 
coasts under the protection and with the menace of superior, formidable 
weapons. . . . How to deal with the "foreign devils"? To fight them or to 
ignore them? To copy and adopt their techniques and give up local habits 
and traditions or to sever all contacts with them and seek refuge in a dream 
of isolation? To be or not to be? ... a dilemma that was tragically 
unanswerable. 1 ' 16 


Thus does rhetoric replace fact in the mythology of Asian stagnation and 
the European miracle. 

The "Chinese formula" seems to be losing credence. But I have no 
doubt that an "Indian formula," an "Islamic formula," an "African 
formula," and so on, will be contrived to shore up Eurocentric history as 
we learn more about Indian, Middle-Eastern, and African technological 
development prior to 1492. 


In Chapter 3 we will take a look at medieval European society and 
compare it to medieval Asian and African society in terms of those social 
categories that seem to be important in the process of change toward 
capitalism and modernity. Among these categories (forms, facts) are class, 
the state, landholding, trade, and urbanization. Our present task is the 
more modest one of criticizing theories that claim that one or another 
social category somehow led Europe to rise above all other civilizations 
before the end of the Middle Ages, before 1492. For this task we can select 
a few of the categories that present-day historians of the European miracle 
claim as favored candidates for this role of historical leadership, of causal 
motor propelling the so-called "take-off to modernity." The favored ones 
seem to be the state, the church, class, and the family. Most frequently 
these categories are, themselves, explained in terms of supposedly more 
basic forces: European rationality, European technology, European 
demographic uniqueness, or European environmental superiority. These 
have been discussed at sufficient length already. The following discussion, 
therefore, will be brief. 


A typical sort of argument begins with a model of the modern European 
nation-state, the kind of medium-sized, well- integrated, moderately 
democratic state that emerged after the rise of capitalism, after 
modernization, after the French and American revolutions. Nobody 
denies that this form is unique. But European miracle historians tend to 
make one of two claims about this state form: either it appeared very early 
in European history, early enough to play a causal role in modernization, 
or it was somehow immanent in European culture, a state form that was 
created, naturally and rationally, by freedom-loving, individualistic, 
antidespotic Europeans of medieval or earlier times. Sometimes both 
claims are made: a reduction to European moral rationality and, at the 
same time, a holistic argument at the level of the state itself. 


Eric L. Jones, for instance, does precisely that in The European 
Miracle. Europe's medieval political system, says Jones, was near "the 
heart of the European miracle." 147 Here the argument combines the 
traditional prejudice about Europe's innate and unique love of freedom 
with some very odd environmentalistic arguments. First the latter. Jones 
takes the familiar argument that Europe in early times had a number of 
fertile core areas, each of which became the hearth of a regional culture, 
and he turns it into a curious argument to the effect that Europe's 
ecological core areas naturally led to a pattern of medium-sized states, 
unlike, he says, the "imperial" pattern of Asian societies. Empires, in 
Jones's view, are innately despotic, and innately given to interfering with 
the development of the economy. Europe's geography saved it from this 
fate. If a number of Europe's modern states have ecological "core areas," 
most do not, and rather few of these core areas became states. The model 
is environmentalistic and invalid. In any case, comparable core areas are 
found in many other parts of the world. Medium-sized, separate units of 
productive agricultural environments are, for instance, typical for 
Southeast Asia, including the rather discrete mainland cores, like the 
Irrawaddy and the Chao Phraya basins, the middle Mekong, and the Red 
River, and even more so the insular region, with cores in Sumatra (two or 
three), Java (three), Bali, Lombok, Sulawesi, Luzon, and so on. India and 
China too are moderately dissected in this way. Distinctive cores in 
Africa include the Middle Niger, Chad, and Congo, among others; in 
western Asia, Mesopotamia, the Iranian Plateau, and so on. 148 

Next, Jones builds the image of these natural European L/r-states as 
somehow naturally forming into what he calls "a states system," a grid of 
roughly equal-sized independent states. These, in the Middle Ages, acted 
toward one another as though they were Hegelian individuals, competing 
yet cooperating, and marching forward, together, as a kind of members' 
club, toward modernity. Thus Jones discerns deep in the Middle Ages 
what amounts to the modern nation-state and the League of Nations. 
Telescoping history, he imbues the medieval European polities with all 
the virtues of the modern state: they provided public services, they 
encouraged the free development of the economy, they were incipiently 
democratic, and so on. All of this because of their environmental basis 
and because freedom-loving Europeans lived in them. In reality, the kind 
of state, and state system, that he describes does not appear until roughly 
the seventeenth century. Jones finds political characteristics of already- 
modernizing Europe, falsely claims that these were present long 
before — some, being environmental, were always present — and so claims 
to have proven that Europe's modern democratic political system was, 
somehow, always present in Europe (and nowhere else). In fact, medieval 


Europe was a hodge-podge of semisovereign feudal political units, a map 
so confused that states as such were not always identifiable, and with few 
■ of the modern state characteristics attributed to these polities by Jones. 
But to understand the absurdity of this model of political history, we 
must notice the way Jones talks about the supposedly barbaric, despotic 
states of non-Europe. In non-Europe, a natural irrationality combines 
with environmental disadvantages to produce the opposite of the 
r wonderful European state and system of states: the huge Oriental empire. 
Why did Asia not develop politically as Europe did? The political 
"infantilism" of Asia is explained by Jones in terms of ( 1 ) a psychological 
deficiency, consisting of irrationality in matters of intellectual vitality 
and innovativeness and a sort of moral failing in attitudes relating to the 
desire for progress, resistance to domination, will to forego animal 
pleasures, and the like, and (2) an inferior natural environment. The 
effects of these failings (and some lesser ones), and thus the effective 
reasons for Asia's political nondevelopment and nonprogress, are (1) 
uncontrolled population growth, and (2) bad government, "Oriental 
' despotism" or, as Jones prefers to label it, empire. Throughout The 
European Miracle, the main argument supporting the theory about how 
Europe's system of states favors development is Jones's countertheory 
about the evil nature of the Asian imperial state. Yet, in the end, the 
countertheory turns out to be as empty as the theory. Jones does not, in 
fact, give any credible explanation as to why such large empires exist in 
Asia and not in Europe. But neither does he give a credible argument as 
to why large states are worse for progress than medium-sized or small ones. 
(And he is blind to the very real progress that occurred in Asia, and to the 
many nonimperial states in Asia.) When we examine Jones's theory about 
Asian empires, then, we find that it has nothing to do with size or kind of 
state and everything to do with a conception about the basic nature of 
politics in non-European societies. This is nothing more than the old idea 
of "Oriental despotism." Asians, and indeed all non-Europeans, naturally 
suffer nasty, despotic, capricious, irresponsible, evil governments. Only 
Europeans understand and thus enjoy freedom. 

This is not an atypical theory among historians who wish to argue 
that European political processes and forms were causal forces leading to 
a medieval "miracle." The basic form of the theory is traditional. It 
consists mainly of three propositions: Europeans have an old, deep-seated 
rationality that impels them toward modern, implicitly democratic, 
political forms (or, less directly, toward individualistic economic behavior 
and thus a preference for a minimalistic state); non-Europeans suffer 
. gladly and naturally a despotic, imperial form of state, sometimes powerful 
but always arbitrary; and Europe's natural environment gives political 


modernization one or another sort of unique boost (ecological cores, 
fertile soil, capes-and-bays accessibility, or whatever). Other propositions 
figure in most arguments, but these three seem to be the most widely used. 

They combine with a methodological principle of great significance: 
whatever causal forces were at work, they were at work early — that is, they 
set the process of modernization in motion long before the end of the 
Middle Ages. This, of course, is the crux of the matter. In the present book 
I argue that modernization (or whatever you want to call it) was indeed , 
going on in medieval Europe, but not only in medieval Europe. Thus the 
events after 1492 did not start modernization but enabled European 
changes to increase in magnitude and effect and eventually produce a 
uniquely "rising" society. Therefore we argue from the uniformitarian 
hypothesis that Europe had no potential greater than that possessed by 
non-Europe during the Middle Ages. The fact that there were forces 
pushing toward democratization and the modern state in medieval Europe 
tells us nothing about European uniqueness. 

John A. Hall uses the basic Jones model, emphasizing what he calls 
the "blockages" that prevented China, India, and the Islamic Middle East 
from developing modern state forms. In brief: China suffered under 
empire. India suffered under caste (and so had no politics whatever). ^ 9 
Islamic-region politics reflected tribalism. Hall describes very old and not 
really typical forms for each of these civilizations, assuming them to be 
frozen and permanent, contrasts these with late postmedieval European 
forms with the inference that these too have been present at least in 
embryo for a long time, and then builds an argument that non-Europe 
always lacked the potential for a "miracle," while Europe always had it. 150 

Michael Mann addresses himself to the abstract entity "power" 
instead of the more visible "state," but his argument is not fundamentally 
different. Mann, like a number of other "miracle" historians, tries to 
interpret the political chaos of early medieval feudalism, with its 
fragmentation of polities and sovereignties, into an argument for 
incipient modernity. The smallness of these politicosocial units implies, 
somehow, that they were more "intensive," more meaningful, more 
pregnant with development potential, than the supposedly vast imperial 
polities of non-Europe. Mann's notion of "intensiveness" is basically a 
notion of value, not of fact. 151 In this context we may recall the Magna 
Carta myth: devolution of power from king to barons is traditionally 
described as a movement toward democracy, even though the barons in 
those times were hardly democratic, and poor people preferred to be able 
to appeal above their heads to the king. (And later the rise of royal power 
is described as a further step toward democracy, except that you can't have 
it both ways. 152 ) Jean Baechler uses roughly the same model — although, 


unlike Hall and Mann but rather like Jones, he downplays the role of 
Christianity in political evolution — with one additional argument: 
Baechler believes that the medieval European aristocracy (originally an 
Indo-European "warrior aristocracy") was itself the original source of 
democracy, claiming, in a curious reading of history, that aristocrats not 
only dealt democratically (respectfully) with one another, but they also 
respected the rights of their peasants. 153 

Yet there was no democracy in the Middle Ages: European states 
were as despotic as any found anywhere else. Just as we noted with regard 
to the ancient Greeks, political forms found in Europe had counterparts 
elsewhere. If city-states were (perhaps) the closest to democracy — some 
of them were republican, and were in essence merchant-oligarchies — one 
need only note that city-states of many sorts lined the coasts of the Indian 
and Pacific oceans. Nor was the republican form unknown in Asia and 


Many theories assign one or another causal role to the church as a social 
institution in the modernization of Europe and the rise of capitalism. 154 
(Many other theories assign such a role to Christianity itself, but I will not 
comment on these.) Of course, the church did have such a role. The 
problems lie elsewhere. Most of them concern the question whether the 
church (or churches) provided Europe, and Europeans, with something 
that was not provided to non-Europeans by their own religious 
institutions or by other institutions in their own cultures. For instance, 
the claim has been made that the Catholic church in the Middle Ages 

I unified Europe in cultural terms, to a degree not found elsewhere. But 
elsewhere comparable or parallel processes were at work. For instance, the 
much-maligned empires, such as the Chinese empire, provided unity in 
many ways, while the Islamic religion provided it in the Muslim world. It 

\ has also been argued that the medieval church compensated for the 
political fragmentation of Europe, allowing pan-European development 

■ to take place in spite of the lack of a clear pattern of strong states. True. 
The question is comparative: did the church thereby give Europe some 
developmental advantage over other civilizations, in which, quite often, 
there was political unity throughout most historical epochs? I think the 
answer must be that the church did not give Europe some special cultural 
quality, lacking in other civilizations, such that Europe could thereby leap 
into the forefront of social evolution. 

Therefore I see no basis in fact for suggestions that the medieval 
church led to European historical superiority in a way that other religious 


institutions, in other civilizations, did not do. John A. Hall, for instance, 
asserts that "Christianity provided the best shell for the emergence of 
states." 155 Michael Mann claims that the medieval church "encouraged a 
drive for moral and social improvement even against worldly au- 
thority" — a statement that one might question not merely as a 
comparison, but also as a factual assertion about the role played by the 
church in Europe. 156 For H. E. Hallam, "the medieval Latin church was 
the seed-bed of the early modern idea of capitalism." 157 K. E Werner 
maintains that "the 'European miracle' [took place] . . . because of the 
existence of a Christian world dominated in the west by Catholic 
doctrines." 158 Such statements fail as comparisons with other religions, 
and other civilizations; but they also fail because the postulated rise of 
Europe did not take place in the Middle Ages but somewhat later. That 
Christianity helped in that eventual rise is not at all in question. 

It is not necessary to discuss Max Weber's celebrated argument about 
the role of religion in the rise of Europe, or his celebrated argument about 
the special role of the Protestant Reformation in the rise of capitalism. 
Weber of course held the views that I criticized above. But the causal role 
of religion is not at issue in this book, the concern of which is a 
uniformitarian view of European and non-European civilizations and 
their dynamism. 


Three kinds of argument concerning class are relevant to our discussion. 
The first of these is a two-tiered argument for Europe's ancient and 
medieval historical superiority that can be summarized as follows: (1) 
Classless (or "preclass") regions and peoples are simply irrelevant in the 
matter of explaining Europe's superiority and the world's historical 
progress, because classless societies are necessarily both unprogressive and 
primitive. (2) Therefore, the real problems calling for explanation 
concern the question why some class-stratified societies (the European 
ones) are progressive while others (principally Asian) are stagnant and 
backward. Africa below the Sahara is then declared sweepingly to be 
classless and thus irrelevant to world history. This argument is still widely 
used, in some analytical works (among them Eric L. Jones's The European 
Miracle), in some world-history textbooks (as we noted in Chapter 1), and 
in some (probably most) modern atlases of world history. (Many of these 
atlases have no maps of Africa for the whole of history from the Upper 
Paleolithic to 1492 ! 159 ) In place of an extended discussion of this issue I 
will just offer these comments: Africa was not classless in 1492 (a point to 
which we return in Chapter 3), classless societies are not stagnant, 160 and 


the historians who make this sort of argument about classlessness quite 
regularly contradict themselves by declaring that the classless European 
peoples of ancient and medieval times — the "barbarian tribes," Germans, 
Celts, Slavs, etc. — were very progressive: after borrowing the idea of 
classes and a few other things from the Romans, these primitive but 
supposedly progressive, innovative, aggressive, inquisitive, achievement- 
oriented Europeans than surged forward to modernity. 

It is customary and quite proper to examine the class structure of a 
society in history and ask how the different classes acted to favor or resist 
change, and in which directions. In the absence of such an examination, 
we usually get an analysis with a bias toward ascribing causality solely to 
kings and other sorts of elites. Eurocentrism becomes a problem only if the 
assertion is made that a given class did something historically efficacious 
in Europe but that this class did not exist in civilizations outside of 
Europe. This kind of argument is very common in the European miracle 
literature. Although especially favored among conservative historians, it 
is also found quite often among those Marxists who cling to the old 
formulas about the "stages of class society." Fairly representative of the 
latter is Padgug's argument that a slave mode of production, in its pure 
form — with slavery dominant in commodity production and with 
implications for economic progress, the development of private property, 
and class struggle — existed in ancient times only in Greece and Rome, 
and that lack of this feature in Asia accounts in part for the tendency of 
Asian societies to "stagnate." 161 (Roughly the same argument is then used 
by some Marxists to assert that the slave-plantation system of later times 
was not properly capitalist because the workers were slaves, not 
wage-earners. We deal with this point in Chapter 4.) This issue is 
important, but I will set it aside after one comment: I believe that those 
scholars who assert that the slave class was more important in the classical 
Mediterranean than Asia make a very elementary error, perhaps easiest to 
do if one is not a geographer. It may just be a question of geographical 
scale. The Athenian empire was perhaps one-hundredth the size of the 
Ch'in empire. In small, highly developed regions of China, slavery was 
very likely as important as it was in Attica or in the plantation regions of 
Roman Italy. 

Jean Baechler, a French historical sociologist, has argued that one 
uniquely European class, the medieval aristocracy, was the central causal 
force in the European miracle. 162 He dismisses Africa out of hand, then 
asks why it is that modernity arose in Europe and not in Asia. 163 
Accepting many of the standard arguments as partial explanations, he 
argues that the most important reason the miracle occurred was the 
existence in Europe of a true aristocracy. Baechler describes an ancient 


Indo-European society characterized by its warrior aristocracy. In India, 
the aristocracy became corrupted, but not so in Europe. 16- * He carefully 
defines the medieval aristocracy and its special social quality, "feudality," 
in such a way as to distinguish it from a mere landlord class, or a class of 
landlords with added seigneurial powers. The aristocracy was a band of 
comrades, equals joined by bonds of feudal loyalty, a democracy in its own 
right. It did not, he says, hold the political power in society, and this was 
a key to its unique character. Elsewhere, either the aristocracy was ground 
under by the (imperial, despotic) polity, or it became corrupted into a 
caste form, as in India; in such cases there was to be no modernization. 
The European aristocracy had a special sort of private power, one original 
source of capitalist power. (Baechler contradicts himself here, since in the 
feudal era the aristocracy was indeed the political power. He simply notes 
that there was a time of political chaos, and passes on to other matters. 165 ) 
In sum, the aristocracy invents democracy and incipient capitalist 
property. The European peasants are also incipient capitalists from early 
on. Baechler casts aside the idea that Europe's peasantry was an unfree, 
oppressed community in the Middle Ages and gives it quite remarkable 
qualities: The peasant village was self-governed, a kind of "republic," with 
characteristics reminiscent of urban life. 166 "A peasant is an entrepreneur 
in miniature." 167 By the fourteenth century this incipiently capitalist 
peasant is the real peasant of Europe. The peasant village is a little 
democracy. The peasants are autonomous decision-makers. Baechler 
simply ignores serfdom, ignores, likewise, the importance of the fact that 
the lords owned the land, exploited the peasants, and controlled their 
lives. Feudalism becomes a kind of democratic society in which the 
aristocrats play a democratic role and the peasants live as free people. 
Moreover, these peasants, deep in the Middle Ages, had all of the 
attributes of the capitalist farmer that we associate with the eighteenth 
century and thereafter: investment, profit orientation, capital accumula- 
tion. (And they were smart enough, Baechler says, to avoid the extended 
family.) All of this is fantasy. It is a simple telescoping of history, pushing 
the modern world (and particularly the modern capitalist farmer) back 
into the Middle Ages. 

Baechler contrasts all of this with India. His depiction of India is 
bizarre. India had no aristocracy throughout history, as a result of the caste 
system, and this is the "deepest cause" for its failure to develop throughout 
history. 168 (India did have a very formidable aristocracy.) Indian society 
had no political dimension: "The polity .... is not a reality in India." 
Therefore "the sense of identity in India could never be political" — not 
to say democratic. 169 (Nonsense.) Caste was invented to take the place of 


the missing polity. (More nonsense.) India didn't have a peasantry, it 
merely had "agricultural workers." 170 How can this be true? Because real 
peasants were entrepreneurial decisionmakers, something supposedly 
absent in India (but in reality no more so than in Europe). Baechler thus 
uses a mythical India as a counterpoint to his basic argument: In Europe, 
aristocrats and the free society created by them (and their allies the 
peasants) were the principal source of the "miracle." But Europe's 
aristocracy and peasantry did not have these romanticized qualities, and, 
more crucially, comparable classes existed in many other regions in the 
same period, as we will see in Chapter 3. 

In Marxist theory, the concept of class is part of a larger and more 
consequential notion, that of class struggle. For all class-stratified 
societies, said Marx and Engels, class struggle is the motor of progress. 
Most present-day Marxists consider cultural evolution to be very much 
more complex than this, but they continue to emphasize the idea, and 
process, of class struggle. Again we must notice that there is nothing 
inherently Eurocentric about this concept unless one argues that genuine 
class struggle, or some phase or form of it, occurs only in Europe. But many 
Marxists argue precisely that way. According to Maurice Godelier, for 
example, the West displays "the purest forms of class struggle" and "alone 
has created the conditions for transcending . . . class organization." 171 
Probably the most influential recent formulation of this sort of argument 
is Robert Brenner's theory about the rise of capitalism. 172 Brenner tries to 
demonstrate that the rise of capitalism prior to 1492 was a result of class 
struggle, but class struggle only in Europe. Then he uses this argument as 
evidence against what he calls "Third- Worldism," the belief that 
non-Europe has been of great importance historically and is so 
(politically) in the present. This conclusion has strongly influenced not 
only Marxist but also conservative thought in history, geography, 
• sociology, and economic-development theory. Certainly the Brenner 
theory deserves our attention in this book. And it is not at all a 
complicated theory. 

According to Brenner, class struggle between serfs and lords, influ- 
enced by depopulation, led to the decline of feudalism in northwestern 
Europe. (Brenner does not mention non-Europe and scarcely mentions 
southern Europe.) In most parts of northwestern Europe, the peasants won 
this class struggle and became in essence petty landowners, now satisfied 
with their bucolic existence and unwilling to innovate. Only in England 
did the lords maintain their grip on the land; peasants thus remained 
tenants. The peasantry then became differentiated, producing a class of 
landless laborers and a rising class of larger tenant farmers, wealthy enough 


to rent substantial holdings and forced (because they had to pay rent) to 
commercialize, innovate technologically, and thus become capitalists. 
(Brenner thinks that serfs, lords, and landowning peasants did not inno- 
vate, and that towns, even English towns, had only a minor role in the rise 
of capitalism.) English yeoman tenant farmers, therefore, were the foun- 
ders of capitalism. Stated differently: capitalism arose because English 
peasants lost the class struggle. In reality, however, peasants were not 
predominantly landowners in the other countries of the region; capitalism 
grew more rapidly in and near the towns than in the rural countryside; and 
the technological innovativeness that Brenner attributes to fourteenth 
and fifteenth century English farmers really occurred much later, too late 
to fit into his theory. More importantly, commercial farming and indeed 
urban protocapitalism were developing during this period in southern 
Europe and (as I will argue) in other continents. Brenner's theory is simply 
wrong. 173 


There is nothing new about the belief that the European family is in some 
fundamental sense more rational and more civilized than the family types 
found elsewhere. When the modernization doctrine became dominant, 
this belief seems to have faded into the background; there was now a 
near-consensus among social scientists that differences in family type 
should be strung along the continuum from "traditional" to "modern" or, 
as a variation, from "folk" to "urban." Traditional families, it was argued, 
have tended to reflect strong kinship ties at a scale larger and wider than 
the nuclear family; they have tended to form large, extended-family 
households; and they have tended to be associated with high birthrates. In 
the absence of much evidence concerning the medieval European family 
and household, it was rather widely assumed that earlier European 
families had conformed to the traditional model, which was seen as the 
"preindustrial" family, contrasted with the'modern, post-industrial-revo- 
lution nuclear family, forming a small household, with looser kin ties 
beyond the household, and with fewer children. This transformation was 
thought to be associated with what was called the "demographic transi- 
tion," the process of change from a "traditional" demographic pattern, 
with high birthrate and high deathrate, characteristic of preindustrial 
conditions, to a "modern," postindustrial demographic pattern, with low 
birthrate and low deathrate. 

In the modernization theory of the family, the non-European world 
of underdeveloped countries would go through essentially the same 
transformation as it modernized. Extended family households would be 
replaced by nuclear family households. This would instill modern 


prodevelopment attitudes: people would have fewer children (thus 
combating overpopulation), and they would tend, now, to think more 
individualistically and thus entrepreneurially. 

All of this was a bundle of assumptions. There was no evidence of a 
causal link between birthrate and size of household (or strength of kin ties 
beyond the nuclear family); there was merely a correlation within rich, 
modern societies: both nuclear families and lower birthrates were 
characteristic of these societies. (One leading demographer pointed out 
that nuclear families might, in principle, be likely to have more children 
per couple than extended families. 174 ) In addition, the idea that an adult 
breadwinner would be more entrepreneurial, more prone to accumulate 
capital, more competitive, and so on, if he (assumed to be male) was 
working only for his wife and children and not for a large family including 
his parents, cousins, and other relations, was a tenuous assumption. Large, 
tightly knit families had proven to be powerful accumulators, for instance, 
among many immigrant groups engaged in commerce. Why, indeed, 
should an adult want to work harder only for spouse and children, and not 
for parents, sisters, and so on? (One can in fact construct an argument to 
the effect that an extended family with multiple working adults has 
definite economic advantages in a developing economy. 175 ) As the 
modernization doctrine itself developed, after about 1960, these ideas 
began to dissipate. It became clear that various forms of social 
organization can be equally modern, and that the root causes of change 
and nonchange do not lie in the family structure. 

Rather dramatically, in the midA960s, the notion of a peculiarly 
European family pattern was reinserted into historians' common 
discourse, partly as a result of an influential paper by John Hajnal. 176 As 
we noted at an earlier point in this chapter, in the discussion of 
demographic arguments for the "miracle," historical demography was at 
that time uncovering evidence that preindustrial Europe (or part of 
Europe) had a lower birthrate than one would expect of a "traditional 
society." It seemed that Europeans had been marrying later in life than 
would be expected in a traditional society with Malthusian controls and 
therefore maximum birthrate. Instead of scrapping the Malthusian model 
itself, and arguing instead that all human societies actively control their 
population dynamics by using such tactics as adjusting the age of 
marriage, these historians began to assert, simply, the uniqueness of 
Europe. Other preindustrial societies exhibited the "traditional" pattern, 
with high and uncontrolled birthrates (and therefore superrapid 
population growth when mortality declined in the "transition"). 
Preindustrial Europe, in complete contrast, had a rational family system, 
with rational population control. It was then argued, without evidence, 


that preindustrial Europe had a higher level of living and a lower 
mortality rate than non-Europe, from which it was deduced that Europe 
kept its birthrate down in proper, rational, adjustment to its lower 
deathrate, mainly using the mechanism of delayed marriage. Those who 
put forward this argument simply failed to consider the possibility that 
families in other societies have acted pretty much the same way. Evidence 
to this effect was beginning to appear from a number of non-European 
societies. Some societies had much lower birthrates than would be 
expected from the classic model. Other societies had demonstrated major 
shifts in birthrate, either upward or downward, in response to changes in 
economic and other conditions. 17 7 

Hajnal began his 1965 essay with this flat statement: 

The marriage pattern of most of Europe as it existed for at least two 
centuries up to 1940 was, as far as we can tell, unique or almost unique in 
the world. There is no known example of a population of non-European 
civilization which has had a similar pattern. The distinctive marks of the 
"European pattern" are (1) a high age of marriage and (2) a high proportion 
of people who never marry at all. 178 

Hajnal's argument was in some ways very careful and in others very casual. 
He noted carefully that the evidence for late marriage and (somewhat) 
low marriage frequency in Europe for periods before the seventeenth 
century was inconclusive, and that the "fragmentary" evidence for the 
European Middle Ages suggested a "non-European pattern." 179 He 
introduced absolutely no historical data for non-European regions, 
casually comparing historical Europe with twentieth-century non-Europe. 
The theoretical constraint is very clear: non-European patterns are 
"traditional" and permanent, hence a comparison of seventeenth-century 
Europe with mid-twentieth-century Asia or Africa is perfectly accepta- 
ble. 180 

This proposition about the unique European pattern of later 
marriages and lower marriage frequencies was widely and quickly 
incorporated into the broader theory of Europe's historical "miracle." 
Without much supporting evidence, the proposition was firmly pushed 
backward into the Middle Ages. According to Lawrence Stone, writing in 
1977, "it has now been established beyond any doubt" that over most of 
northwest Europe the middle and lower classes "married remarkably late, 
certainly from the fifteenth century onward. . . . This custom of delayed 
marriage is an extraordinary and unique feature of north-west European 
civilization." 181 Here one notices particularly the word "remarkably." 
This is "remarkable" only if there is something to compare it with; yet 


non-European historical data are not given or even sought. Michael 
Mann derives the pattern from the Iron Age Indo-European peasant 
society. Patricia Crone speculates that it is perhaps an ancient Germanic 
trait. Eric L. Jones thinks that it goes back three or four thousand years. 
Alan Macfarlane thinks that it has its roots in "a particular amalgam of 
Christianity and Germanic customs." 182 And so on. In a word: the 
pattern is very old in Europe. 

The matter of dates, or age, is certainly crucial. Western Europe was 
undergoing major transformations from the seventeenth century onward, 
and a delayed and lower marriage rate could well be explained by a 
number of the newer facts: mobility, loss of holdings due to enclosures, 
urbanization, and, later, the well-understood demographic and social 
effects of the industrial revolution. Even the sixteenth century was 
somewhat chaotic in western Europe. But if the marriage pattern emerged 
before 1492, a date before these disruptions began, then one can speak of 
a definite "European pattern," not merely a "preindustrial" or "tradi- 
tional" pattern. And one can begin to build a general causal theory for the 
subsequent changes — the "European miracle." 

Additional propositions were added. It had long been known that 
nuclear family households and neolocal residence (the married couple 
establishes a household well separated from those of the parents) have 
been characteristic of western Europe during recent centuries, and this is 
to be expected as a feature of modernization. It fits with standard 
modernization theory: the process is supposed to lead from extended 
family to nuclear family. But the European miracle historians now argue 
that nuclear families and neolocal residence are part of a unique 
"European familial system" (Laslett). 183 And again they locate its origin 
far back in history. And again they sweepingly assert that non-Europeans 
lack these patterns. In fact, there is good evidence that nuclear-family 
households were common in many parts of non-Europe. Taeuber, 
analyzing Buck's data, found that more than 60% of peasant households 
in China were nuclear in the early twentieth century. 18 ^ These are not 
historical data, but the point is that China is supposed, according to 
modernization theory, to be especially "traditional" as regards family and 
many other things; indeed, there is common confusion between the 
notion of the Chinese lineage or "sib" — made famous by Weber — and the 
idea of the extended family. Larger, extended families are uncommon in 
Latin America. In India, as well as in China, the notion of an extended 
family is ambiguous because of the ambiguity of the notion of "neolocal 
residence" (in a cramped village, house-building space can be a problem), 
and the association sometimes found between neolocality and available 
land upon which to begin a small holding. Further confusion is added 


over the association between extended (and/or joint) family and 
inheritance rights, power, mobility, and more. 185 Meanwhile, back in 
Europe, the model of a supposedly characteristic nuclear-neolocal pattern 
is subject to very serious questions for the Middle Ages. (For even earlier 
times the idea of a unique pattern is speculative, and belongs with other 
old and suspect ideas — discussed earlier in this chapter — about the 
ancient Germanic tribes and their unique individualism, progressiveness, 
and the like.) Medieval marital residence patterns may sometimes have 
reflected manor rules (such as assignment of holdings) rather than 
cultural residence rules in circumstances of serfdom and insecure tenancy, 
and a distinction has to be made between different types of rural regions, 
such as the areas with off-farm employment (like woolen areas of 
southeastern England), those with "frontier" characteristics, and so on. 
There is even reason to question the notion of a persistent west European 
marriage pattern. 186 But even granting the generalization about western 
Europe, there is no basis for considering the European pattern to have 
been, historically, unique. 187 

Finally, the model is embellished with some rather gaudy ornamen- 
tation. It is claimed that the unique European pattern is not merely a 
matter of neolocality, nuclear households, and age and frequency of 
marriage. West European marriages were grounded in love. Elsewhere, 
marriages were arranged. (But arranged marriages seem to have been the 
rule in premodern Europe, prior to the periods of high mobility and social 
disruption. The notion, regularly invoked here, that non-European 
couples are strangers to one another prior to their being shoved into 
marriage is colonial-era prejudice supported by a few unusual cultural 
situations. Romantic love in this argument is considered an attribute of 
European rationality. Non-European couples are certainly as loving as 
European couples.) It is claimed, next, that the unique European family, 
because it is nuclear, produces a unique European personality type. The 
theory is that the small (European) household leads inevitably to 
individualistic, competitive, acquisitive, yet caring behavior. Mann and 
Jones, as we saw earlier, put forward the image of an ancient peasant 
household, a Hansel and Gretel house deep in the forest, as the historical 
source of this individualistic pattern. Macfarlane, who presents perhaps 
the most extreme form of this theory (and is chided by some of his 
colleagues not for his theory but for his claim that it applies mainly to the 
English), argues that the early medieval English family produced a person 
with the psychological and behavioral traits of (in essence) Weber's 
capitalist personality, that the causal chain runs from tribal customs and 
religion to family, from family to personality, and from personality to the 
beginnings of capitalism (a point we return to below). This argument is 


advanced mainly by erecting a model of what Macfarlane considers to be 
"peasant society," with a peasant family and peasant mentality. Early 
English rural folk don't fit this model. Therefore they were not peasants, 
and did not have the traditional traits of peasantry, like a traditional 
family type and traditional mentality. 188 As many have commented, 
Macfarlane's notion of "peasant" is a straw man, uncharacteristic of 
modern non-Europe, much less of historical non-Europe, and his view of 
the medieval English farm folk as nonpeasants is historically invalid. 189 
The theory of the unique European family is an important part of the 
European miracle theory as it is being propagated today. It is used in two 
distinct arguments. The first of these combines the family theory with 
Malthusianism. The argument runs as follows: Humans in general are not 
rational enough to control their sexual behavior and limit the number of 
offspring to suit the prevailing conditions of food supply and the like. 
Therefore, ordinary humans experience permanent, or periodic, crises, in 
which overpopulation leads to famine and war and pestilence, after which 
the now-reduced population begins again to overproduce offspring. The 
root axiom is irrationality. People behave not intelligently, but (as Mai thus 
said 200 years ago) rather like barnyard beasts. 190 The historical result of 
this process is to prevent development. Any improvement in, for instance, 
productive technology merely leads to population growth, to crisis, to 
depopulation, and thus back to the status quo ante — a cycle of stagnation. 
This is one and perhaps the crucial cause of the nondevelopment of 
non-European societies in general. Europeans, by contrast, have always 
(or perhaps for just a millennium or so) exhibited rational behavior in all 
matters relating to population. This includes decisions about marriage 
and about childbearing. The unique European late-marrying, nuclear, 
neolocal, companionate family is the crucial institution in which this 
rational decision-making process takes place. Thus the European family 
has permitted Europeans (or west Europeans, or northwest Europeans) to 
check population growth, and thereby accumulate material wealth that 
would otherwise be dissipated in the feeding of excess babies. This 
primordial accumulation underlies the permanent progress of Europe. 
This theory, in one form or another, is advanced by many of the historians 
whom we have been discussing, among them Crone, Hall, Jones, Laslett, 
Macfarlane, and Mann. 191 Hall expresses one form of the theory in the 
following comment (part of which we quoted earlier): 

[The] European family has long been small, late marrying, nuclear and 
notably sensitive to Malthusian pressure. . . . The expansion of the Euro- 
pean economy did not occur laterally, as in late traditional China, because 
improvements in output were not eaten up by a massive growth in 


population. The ratio between population and acreage in Europe remained 
favourable ultimately because of the relative continence of the European 
family. 192 

The Malthusian theory reduces humans to beasts. But even for those 
scholars who accept Malthusianism, the notion that the European family 
staves off the Malthusian disasters is hardly credible. 

The second way in which the "unique European family" theory is 
used in arguments for the European "miracle" is a matter of deducing ways 
that the European family produces various sorts of uniquely progressive 
attitudes and actions on the part of Europeans, attitudes and actions that 
then lead toward the miracle. A very widely used form of this argument is 
expressed thusly by Laslett: 

[The] European familial system may have been responsible for a whole series 
of features conducive to economic progress, and perhaps innovation. The 
conditions laid down for marriage and procreation imposed on all 
individuals . . . the necessity of saving, accumulating. . . . [The] European 
familial system fostered the spirit of hoarding and parsimony. 193 

The family thus generates the personality traits of an incipient capitalist, 
and does so deep in the Middle Ages. This, too, is hardly credible and 
hardly in accord with the realities of life (and psychology) before 1492. 
Laslett, like Macfarlane and many others, makes the false assumption that 
a typical medieval European family does, in fact, have choices permitting 
saving, hoarding, accumulating, and so on. This argument requires that 
the peasant family be a substantial landholder, or at least a tenant with 
firm security, such that capital accumulation can take place and not be 
bled off by master or landlord. There is much dispute about the degree of 
landownership in late-medieval western Europe, but it is certain that 
family behavior of the sort described by Laslett could not have been 
common under serfdom and, after the decline of serfdom, could not have 
been common in places where peasants did not own the land. And this 
seems to have been the rule, not the exception. 19 4 It appears that this 
argument is, again, a telescoping of history. The entrepreneurial yeoman 
farmer of, say, the eighteenth century, is pushed back into the Middle 
Ages, and an effect becomes a cause. 

Many other European-family-to-European-miracle arguments are 
common in present-day scholarly discourse, but space permits me to give 
only one additional example, from Lawrence Stone: 

There are several consequences which must have followed from the late 
marriage pattern. . . . [It] is reasonable to assume that for many young men 


this delay involved considerable sexual denial at a time of optimum male 
sexual drive. ... If one follows Freudian theory, this could lead to neuroses. 
. . . [It] could help to explain the high level of group aggression, which lay 
behind the extraordinary expansionist violence of western nation-states at 
this time. It could also have been a stimulus to capitalist economic 
enterprise . . . stimulating saving in order to marry, and generating activist 
social and economic dynamism. 195 


The sublimation of sex among young male adults may well account for the 
extraordinary military aggressiveness, the thrift, the passion for hard work, 
and the entrepreneurial and intellectual enterprise of modern Western 
man. 196 

Europeans conquered the world because their young men were sexually 

Space does not permit us to list and discuss all of the other common 
or garden-variety explanations for the so-called European miracle. Some 
additional explanations will be mentioned in various contexts at later 
points in this book. But I hope that the discussion in this chapter has 
sufficiently made the point that no characteristic of Europe's environ- 
ment, Europe's people, or Europe's culture, at any time prior to 1492, can 
be convincingly shown to have had anything to do with the fact that 
Europe developed while other civilizations did not do so. 

I will try, in the next two chapters, to show that the whole question 
must be phrased in a different way and answered in a different way. Europe 
did not rise, relative to the other civilizations, prior to 1492. When Europe 
did rise, after 1492, this reflected, not some special quality of 
"Europeanness," but the immense wealth which came into Europe as a 
result of colonialism in the sixteenth century and thereafter. 


1. Although Eric L. Jones's 1981 book The European Miracle popularized the 
phrase "the European miracle," it had been in use for a long time with the same 
essential meaning: the unique rise of Europe before or during the Middle Ages. Not 
every historian would describe this as a "miracle," but the term has wide acceptance, 
as evidence the fact that an international symposium entitled "The European 
Miracle" was held at Cambridge University in 1985. 

2. Apparently my 1976 article, "Where Was Capitalism Born?" was the first 
publication to reject the "miracle" theory absolutely, that is, without qualification. In 
1990 Samir Amin, commenting on a later paper of mine, indicated his basic 


agreement with this rejectionist position. (Amin, "Colonialism and the Rise of 
Capitalism: A Comment," 1990; Blaut, "Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism," 
1989; also see Blaut, "Fourteen Ninety-Two," 1992; and Amin, "On Jim Blaut's 
'Fourteen Ninety-Two,'" 1992.) A few other historians have taken positions 
approaching this one; their views are discussed later in this chapter. 

3. Another seminal work was Cyril Black's The Dynamics of Modernization: A 
Study in Comparative History (1966). Other such works in various fields will be 
discussed later in this chapter. 

4. Perhaps one reason was the maturation of the discipline of history itself. 
Another was the influence, not entirely salutary, of positivistic scientific method on 
history, which led to an attempt to specify variables and "factors," and, if possible, 
quantify each of them. Another reason was the loss of faith in the nineteenth-century 
idea of inevitable progress: after nearly a half century of chaos and war, progress 
definitely did not appear to be something natural and inevitable; it had to be 
explained and also produced. Still a third reason was the general secularization of 
European thought, including history, such that human events could not be assumed 
to reflect guidance of a higher power. Another reason, possibly a very important one, 
was the general development of academic disciplines, and their involvement in (and 
nutrition from) international and domestic policy. This implied that each discipline, 
seeing the world with some degree of bias in favor of its own subject-as-factor (for 
economists, the market factor; for psychologists, the motivation factor; for 
sociologists, the demographic factor and the social-structural factor; for geographers, 
the resource factor; etc.) tended to argue in favor of historical models that treated our 
factor as crucial and those of others as secondary. Since many social scientists wrote 
history in this process, this led to some special pleading. 

5. 1 do not mean to imply that all of this was a dominant theory for the discipline 
of history as a whole. The great majority of historical scholars worked on smaller 
problems, carefully delving into events and developing limited explanations for those 
events. The modernization perspective influenced some of the smaller generalizations, 
for instance proffering explanations in which the factors most supportive of 
modernizationism were favored — factors like population, technology, and the like. 
And there were some areas of research where lack of attention to the history of 
non-Europe was a critical source of error (most notably, as we will see, in studies of the 
history of European technology). In addition, there were (and are) many different 
points of view in the vast and diverse field of professional history, so it would be 
questionable to characterize a particular historiographic period as being dominated by 
a particular governing theory (or "paradigm"). I suspect that my own concern with 
the body of literature relating to the "European miracle" problem probably leads me 
to overemphasize the significance of the modernization view on history as a whole. It 
should also be noticed that most of the prominent writers about the specific problem 
of explaining the unique rise of Europe were specialist historians — economic 
historians, historical sociologists, and so forth — and not historians of the standard 

6. Cabral, Unity and Struggle (1979). 

7. As to the present and future, Third World intellectuals tended to make two 
arguments. Those who supported the idea of a capitalist form of development argued 
that economic development must consist of the defense of native capital against the 
corrosive diffusion into one's country of the economic and political dominance of 
European countries and corporations. For socialists, influence and dominance by 
international capitalism quite obviously had to be rejected. Both groups tended to 


adopt "dependency theory" or "underdevelopment theory," which was a theory both 
of history and of modern social processes and development. A relatively small 
minority of Third World intellectuals, usually reflecting the thinking and interests of 
the very wealthy and very right-wing sectors, welcomed the idea of economic 
domination by foreign capitalist interests. Since the wealthy social sectors dominated 
most Third World societies, this minority point of view often determined policy. 
Also, it received much more prominence than it deserved in the journals of the First 

8. See James, A History of Pan- African Revolt (1938), The Black Jacobins (1938), 
"The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery" (1970); Williams, Capitalism and Slavery 
(1944). We discuss these matters in Chapter 4- 

9. Amin, Accumulation on a World Scale (1974) and later works. My articles 
"Geographic Models of Imperialism" (1970) and "Where Was Capitalism Born?" 
(1976) laid out the skeleton of a general theory. 

10. I deal with this matter in The National Question (1987b). 

11. See Van Leur's 1934 essay "On Early Indonesian trade," reprinted in his 
Indonesian Trade and Society (1955). 

12. Duyvendak, Ma Huan Re-examined (1933); Needham and collaborators, 
Science and Civilization in China, published in 6 volumes between 1965 and 1984; 
Wheatley, The Golden Khersonese (1961) and The Pivot of the Four Quarters (1971); 
Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1973). 

13. Amin, Unequal Development (1976), Eurocentrism (1988), "Colonialism and 
the Rise of Capitalism: A Comment" (1990). 

14 Bernal, Black Athena, vol. 1 (1987) and vol. 2 (1991). 

15. Mention should also be made of Eric Wolf's 1982 book Europe and the Peoples 
Without History which provides a useful and important survey of the history of both 
European and non-European civilizations and shows how unconvincing is the theory 
that non-European civilizations, historically, were stagnant and unprogressive (that 
they were "peoples without history"). Wolf, however, stops short of questioning the 
truly crucial Eurocentric belief that Europeans were more progressive than 
non-Europeans in several ways that are crucial to the "European miracle" theory, and 
so he does not directly confront that theory. (It should be noted that most mainstream 
historians no longer argue that non-European civilizations are, or were, totally 
unprogressive, totally "unhistorical," arguing instead about slow rates of change, 
"blockages" inhibiting change, and the like — a difference of phrasing which, as we 
will see, is not always a difference of argument.) 

16. It is always risky to try to explain broad changes of fashion in scholarship, 
especially when the changes are still underway, so this interpretation cannot be more 
than a hunch, or hypothesis. Scholarly attitudes toward the Third World were very 
positive in the period of anticolonial and civil rights struggles. After the late 1960s the 
mood changed. Not only did more conservative views come to dominate the Western 
world, but rather unexpected difficulties emerged in the Third World itself: national 
conflicts, failure of development programs, and more. Western scholarship had never 
really abandoned the traditional view of Europe and its relations to non-Europe, 
including the diffusionist view of colonialism, and it appears that this older paradigm, 
never abandoned, simply became, once again, thoroughly dominant. Certainly the 
attention that had been paid previously to dependency theory and related views fell 
away among mainstream scholars. Among Marxists the process was even more 
dramatic, because it was less expected. In brief, Eurocentric Marxists who dismissed 
the role of the Third World both historically and in the present now became virtually 


the only Marxists within the academic world to pronounce upon issues related to the 
Third World. It became quite fashionable to insist, once again, that only the working 
class of the advanced capitalist countries can bring about socialism because each stage 
of history commences in this part of the world (Inside) before it spreads to the rest of 
the world (Outside). In the conservative camp, not only did Eurocentric views regain 
their hegemony, but one began, now, to hear whispers of views not far distant from 
racism: views about Third World peoples not having the potential to develop. 

17. See Brenner, "The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of 
Neo-Smithian Marxism" (1977), "Agrarian class structure and economic develop- 
ment in pre-industrial Europe" (1985), "The Agrarian roots of European capitalism" 
(1985b); Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974), Lineages of the 
Absolute State (1974); Warren, Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism (1980). 

18. I will discuss only the more important beliefs, perhaps neglecting a few of 
these. And I will give just enough evidence to show that these beliefs are not 
self-evidently true. Much fuller evidence is given, to dispute some of the beliefs, in 
Chapters 3 and 4. 

19. See Chapter 1, note 2. 

20. Bowler, The Invention of Progress (1989); Harris, The Rise of Anthropological 
Theory (1968); Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America (1963); Jackson, Race 
and Racism: Essays in Social Geography (1987); Stocking, Race, Culture, and Evolution 
(1968); Trigger, A History of Archeological Thought (1989). 

21. See Bernal, Black Athena, vol. 1 (1987). 

22. See Gossett, Race (1963). 

23. Blaut, "The Theory of Cultural Racism" (1992). 

24. "Hereditary neuralgia of the presumably strong tendency toward hysteria 
and autohypnosis of the Indian . . ." Max Weber, The Religion of India (1967), p. 387. 
This postulate is basic to Weber's analysis of Brahminism as prime cause for India's 
lack of development. 

25. "[The] . . . negroes long ago showed themselves unsuitable for factory work 
and the operation of machines; they have not seldom sunk into a cataleptic sleep. 
Here is one case in economic history where tangible racial distinctions are present" 
Weber, General Economic History ( 1981 ), p. 379. Although Weber says here that this 
is merely "one case" of racial influences, note that the case is crucial for Weber's 
analysis both of "rationality" and of modernization; the "racial distinctions" here 
separate out Africans in a fundamental way: a clear case of moderate yet crucial 
racism. In the same vein, "it was found that the American Indians were entirely 
unsuitable for plantation labor" (p. 299). 

26. Weber, The Religion of China (1951), pp. 231-232. Weber considers these to 
be "racial qualities of the Chinese" (p. 230) although cultural factors may be involved. 

27. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1958), p. 30. Weber 
says here that "it would be natural to suspect that the most important reason" for the 
rationality of the Occident lies in "differences of heredity," and "the importance of 
biological heredity," he thinks, is "very great" (p. 30). But we do not yet know how 
to measure its influence, so our attention should focus mainly on the cultural factors 
(pp. 30-31). This was typical moderate racism (as I call it) for the time the work was 
published (1904-1905). 

28. I have not discussed the question whether biological racism remains 
important today as a genuinely implicit theory, that is, one still accepted but not 
consciously so. I suspect that it does. Some Eurocentric historians hold to positions 
regarding individual differences between Europeans and non-Europeans that are so 


extreme, and so bigoted, that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at least a few 
of them may hold to an implicitly racist infratheory, perhaps unconsciously believing, 
that is, that the inferiority of non-Europeans is genetically determined. 

29. Among many sources on the racism fallacy, see Franz Boas' classic book, 
Race, Language, and Culture (1948); also Blum, Pseudoscience and Mental Ability 
(1978); Gossett, Race (1965); Haller, Outcasts from Evolution (1971); Jackson, Race 
and Racism ( 1987); Magubane, The Ties that Bind: African' American Consciousness and 
Africa (1987); Gill and Levidow, Anti-Racist Science Teaching (1987). 

30. The idea that demographic behavior is not fully under social control, is a 
primordial biological fact or factor, seems to underlie the thinking of most Eurocentric 
historians (conspicuously Eric L. Jones, Michael Mann, and John Hall). The basic 
proposition seems to be that population will necessarily grow beyond the rational 
limits, and so overpopulation must result unless societies find nondemographic 
solutions, notably by increasing food supply to feed the inexorably increasing 
population. See, for instance, Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol. 1 
(1986): If agricultural yields had not increased in medieval Europe, "the continent 
would . . . have experienced a similar Malthusian cycle every century or so — and 
would not have generated capitalism" (p. 402). This view is even encountered, 
occasionally, in the radical and feminist movements. Note the following view put 
forward by a Marxist-feminist: "[We] assume (given the ubiquity of the sex drive . . .) 
that the total number of conceptions in a population will tend to exceed those desired 
within a given incentive structure, and this unintended surplus will be greater, the 
more imperfect are the means at hand. ... A given fertility pattern then is taken to 
be 'rational' . . . except for a small but variable excess [of births]," Seccombe, "Marxism 
and Demography," (1983), p. 31. The context is a discussion of European medieval 
social evolution, but the argument is given mainly in support of Brenner's theory 
about the strictly European rise of capitalism. Most radicals and feminists reject 
Malthusianism and would reject Seccombe's view as Malthusian. 

31. Jones, The European Miracle (1981), p. 3. Part of the passage is a quotation. 

32. Jones, The European Miracle (1981), p. 219. 

33. Hall, Powers and Liberties: The Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West 
(1985), p. 131. Italics added. 

34. As F. Hassan points out, "Among human populations the practice of 
population control in one form or another is universal." ("Demographic Archeology," 
1978, p. 71.) 

35. Some families will of course have more conceptions than desired, and others 
fewer, because birth control techniques are imperfect, but the average for the larger 
group will be broadly in line with the group's values and population targets. The 
techniques run the gamut from variable age of marriage and variable dowry or bride 
price, to complexity of marriage rules (defining who, in a kin system, is eligible to be 
one's spouse), to timing of sexual relations, to the use of antifertility and abortive 
devices, to infanticide, and other practices. 

36. Much of the scholarship comes from India, where colonial ideology used to 
claim that poverty is a result of people having too many children. Now demographers 
and other social scientists have disproven this myth. See, for instance, Mamdani, The 
Myth of Population Control (1972), and Nag, "How Modernization Can Also Increase 
Fertility" (1980). For Africa, see, for example, Kitching, "Proto-Industrialization and 
Demographic Change" (1983); Swindell, "Domestic Production, Labor Mobility, and 
Population Change in West Africa, 1900-1980" (1981); Cordell and Gregory, the 
introduction to African Population and Capitalism (1987). 


37. See, for instance, numerous studies showing the plasticity of birthrates, 
including Nag "How Modernization Can Also Increase Fertility" (1980), Collyer, 
Birth Rates in Latin America ( 1 965 ) , and Harewood, "Population Growth in Grenada" 

38. See Aston and Philpin, eds., The Brenner Debate (1985), especially the 
introduction by R. Hilton. 

39. Perhaps more readily, because the Malthusian explanation for poverty in 
Third World countries has been a rather troublesome issue for scholars and planners 
in these countries, and it has been important to show that poverty in their countries 
is not somehow caused by the demographic misbehavior of ordinary people. 

40. For instance Montesquieu, in The Spirit of the Laws ([1748] 1949) "People are 
. . . more vigorous in cold climates" (pt. xiv.2). "There are countries where the excess 
of heat enervates the body, and renders men . . . slothful and dispirited" (pt. xv.7). 

4 1 . "Africa" almost always refers to "Africa south of the Sahara" in the discourse 
I am criticizing, so I will use "Africa" in the same sense in the present discussion. 

42. Blaut, "The Ecology of Tropical Farming Systems" (1963). 

43. See, for example, Collins and Roberts, eds., Capacity for Work in the Tropics 
(1988), which fails to find convincing evidence suggesting negative tropical effects. 

44. The two citations (Gilfillan, "The Coldward Course of Progress," 1920, and 
Lambert, "The Role of Climate in the Economic Development of Nations," 197 1 ) are 
hardly indicative of modem scholarly literature. 

45. India's "debilitating climate" is one reason why India fell behind Europe, 
according to Jones, The European Miracle (1981), p. 198. 

46. Among the pioneer works which have importance for peasant agriculture, 
we may mention Fred Hardy's "Some Aspects of Tropical Soils" (1936) and various 
of his articles in Tropical Agriculture, and the work of Robert Pendleton (especially 
Pendleton, "Land Use in North-Eastern Thailand," 1943, and Prescott and 
Pendleton, Laterites and Lateritic Soils, 1952), and G. Milne "A Soil Reconnaissance 
Journey Through Parts of Tanganyika Territory" (1947). The first comprehensive 
textbook on tropical soils embodying modern knowledge is Mohr and van Baren, 
Tropical Soils (1954). 

47. See Nye and Greenland, The Soil Under Shifting Cultivation (1960); Blaut, 
"The Nature and Effects of Shifting Agriculture" (1962); Ahn, West African Soils 

48. See Miller, Way of Death (1988); Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation 
Complex (1990). The view is echoed in many world history textbooks, for example, 
Roberts, The Hutchinson History of The World (1987), pp. 54-56; McNeill, A World 
History (1967), pp. 273-278. 

49. See Wilken, Good Fanners: Traditional Agricultural Resource Management in 
Mexico and Centra! America (1987); also Nye and Greenland, The Soil Under Shifting 
Agriculture (1960); Blaut, "The Ecology of Tropical Farming Systems" (1963). 

50. Denevan, The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (1976). 

51. See Cockburn and Hecht, The Fate of the Forest (1989). 

52. These marginal areas often are regions in which agriculture is practiced, in 
preference to some less intensive system of land use, because human communities 
have been pushed off better land by historical forces, notably colonialism. 

53. For a typical instance, the Oxford historian J. M. Roberts, in his popular 
world history textbook, The Hutchinson History of the World (1987), makes the 
following quite ignorant statement: "Probably the greatest importance of [the] spread 
of iron-working [in tropical Africa] was the difference it made to agriculture. It made 
possible a new penetration of the forests, new tilling of the soil (which may be 


connected with the arrival of new food-crops from Asia ...)... This suggests once 
again the important limiting factor of the African environment. Most of the 
continent's history is the story of response to influences from the outside [including 
iron-working and new crops)" (pp. 511-512). African farmers, like farmers in Europe 
and many other regions, practiced agriculture with stone tools before iron arrived, and 
continued to do so afterward whenever and wherever iron was hard to obtain. On the 
age of ironworking in tropical Africa, see, for example, Wai-Andah, "West Africa 
Before the Seventh Century" (1981) and Sinclair, "Archeology in Eastern Africa" 

54. See, for example, Roberts (note 53 above); also Irwin, "Sub-Saharan 
Africa," in Garraty and Gay, eds. The Columbia History of the World (1981), p. 299. 

55. See for instance Irvine's classical work, A Textbook of West African 
Agriculture (1934); Coursey, Yams (1967). 

56. According to Jones, The European Miracle (1981), "the Negroid peoples . . . 
were still pushing east and south into the territories of the pygmies and the bushmen 
when the Boers undertook the Great Trek north from the Cape in the 1830s," (p. 
155). Also see Roberts The Hutchinson History of the World (1987), p. 178. 

57. Curtin, Economic Change in Pre-Colonial Africa (1975); Curtin, The Rise and 
Fall of the Plantation Complex (1990); Miller, Way of Death (1988). 

58. See Wisner and Mbithi, "Drought in Eastern Kenya" (1974); Wisner, Power 
and Need in Africa (1989); O'Keefe and Wisner, "African Drought: The State of the 
Game" (1975). 

59. The same arguments apply, with no need for qualification, in Western 
Hemisphere agriculture. In relatively limited parts of the South American rain forest 
the ecosystem is so fragile, as a result of local geological conditions (rocks forming 
infertile kaolinitic clay soils in some areas, almost pure sands in other areas), that 
cropping systems must employ shifting agriculture (or tree crops). But such areas are 
the exception within the present-day distribution of rain forest environments. In 
general, the great sweep of Amazonian and Guianan rain forest is a zone of 
nonsedentary agriculture because of cultural-historical factors, notably depopulation 
and the massive increase in cattle ranching. It is in fact cattle ranching, and not 
shifting agriculture, that leads to agriculturally caused long-term environmental 
degradation in the rainforest region, because (1) ranchers burn forest to the maximum 
extent possible and without control, in order to expand the area of pasture, and (2) 
the resulting pasture leads to steady soil degradation because coarse pasture grasses do 
not maintain the soil ecosystem as does the original forest. Shifting cultivators, by 
contrast, burn only under controlled conditions, burn small areas only, and carefully 
encourage the regrowth of forest. If the forest disappears, their livelihood disappears. 
Shifting agriculturists should not be blamed for deforestation anywhere in the humid 
tropics. See Hecht and Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest (1989); Blaut, "The Nature 
and Effects of Shifting Agriculture" (1963). 

60. Buckle, The History of Civilization in England, 2nd ed., (1913), chap. 2. Also 
see Bowler, The Invention of Progress (1989), pp. 28-29. 

61. Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (1976), p. 513n. 

62. Jones in fact manages to use both of the opposing theories toward the same 
end. In wetter regions of Africa "living was easy." In drier areas "agriculture was not 
productive." Jones, The European Miracle (1981), p. 154. Also see Jones, Growth 
Recurring: Economic Change in World History (1988). 

63. "In Africa the bountifulness and extent of the land makes for a mobile 
peasantry, necessarily therefore poor material on which to build states. Something like 


this is probably true of all slash-and-bum agriculture," John Hall, Powers and Liberties 
(1985), p. 27. ("Slash-and-burn agriculture" is shifting agriculture.) 

64. Laibman, "Modes of Production and Theories of Transition" (1984), p. 284. 
However, Laibman's overall argument is not at all Eurocentric. 

65. Buckle, History of Civilization in England, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (1913), p. 93: "[The] 
great plagues by which Europe has at different periods been scourged, have, for the 
most part, proceeded from the East, which is their natural birthplace, and where they 
are most fatal. Indeed, of those cruel diseases now existing in Europe, scarcely one is 
indigenous; and the worst of them were imported from tropical countries in and after 
the first century of the Christian era." 

66. The theory that the HIV virus which causes AIDS in humans is another one 
of these African plagues descending upon the Western World may very well be just 
the newest myth in this old diffusionist tradition. Whether or not this virus originated 
in Africa, which has not been proven, the myth has already taken on ugly overtones, 
as in the completely unfounded (yet classical) belief that AIDS was transmitted from 
monkeys to humans because of some strange sexual practices in some obscure African 
tribes. (This myth is naively reported in Shannon and Pyle, "The Origin and 
Diffusion of AIDS," 1989. See the critique of this paper by Watts and Okello, 
"Medical Geography and AIDS," 1990. Also see R. C. and R. J. Chirimuuta, AIDS, 
Africa and racism, 2nd ed., 1989.) 

67. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976), p. 43. 

68. See, for instance, Giblin, "Trypanosomiasis Control in African History: An 
Evaded Issue?" (1990); Turshen, "Population Growth and the Deterioration of 
Health: Mainland Tanzania, 1920-1960" (1987). 

69. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism (1957). 

70. See Venturi "The History of the Concept of 'Oriental Despotism' in 
Europe" (1963); P. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolute State (1974); B. Chandra, "Karl 
Marx, His Theories of Asian Societies, and Colonial Rule" (1981). 

71. Similar judgments are still commonly made by theoreticians of the European 
miracle. For instance, John Hall, Powers and Liberties (1985), p. 12: "Chinese society 
was stuck in the same stage for over two thousand years, while Europe, in comparison, 
progressed like a champion hurdler." 

72. And also earlier. It is discussed for instance by Montesquieu, Bernier, Adam 
Smith, and Hegel (see, for instance, "Introduction," and "The Oriental World" in 
Hegel's Philosophy of History, 1956). Also see the historical reviews in Venturi, "The 
History of the Concept of 'Oriental Despotism' in Europe" (1963); P. Anderson, 
Lineages of the Absolute State (1974); and B. Chandra, "Karl Marx, his Theories of 
Asian Societies, and Colonial Review" (1981). 

73. This idea, too, had its forerunners. Possibly Marx got the idea from Karl 
Ritter, his professor of geography at Berlin. 

74. Marx and Engels, Selected Conespondence (1975). 

75. Marx and Engels considered other factors as well, and it is fair to say that 
their analysis remained speculative. I believe that Engels withdrew from the idea of 
"Oriental despotism" in late life. See the discussion of this topic in P. Anderson, 
Lineages of the Absolute State (1974); Blaut, "Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism" 
(1989); and B. Chandra, "Karl Marx, His Theories of Asian Societies, and Colonial 
Rule" (1981). 

76. See Laibman, "Modes of Production and Theories of Transition" (1984), 
and Bailey and Llobera, The Asiatic Mode of Production (1981). 


77. Weber, The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations (1976), pp. 84, 131, 
157, The Religion of China (1951), pp. 16, 21, 25, and "The Origin of Seigneurial 
Proprietorship," part 1, chap. 3, esp. pp. 56-57 in General Economic History (1981). 
Also see McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976), pp. 93, 207, 259. 

78. Weber, The Agrarian Sociobgy of Ancient Civilizations (1976), pp. 157-158. 
Also, on p. 84: "The basis of the economy [in Egypt] was irrigation, for this was the 
crucial factor in all exploitation of land resources. Every new settlement demanded 
construction of a canal . . . Now canal construction is necessarily a large-scale 
operation, demanding some sort of collective social organization; it is very different 
from the relatively individualistic activity of clearing virgin forest. Here then is the 
fundamental economic cause for the overwhelmingly dominant position of the 
monarchy in Mesopotamia [and] Egypt. 

79. See, for instance, Denevan, The Aboriginal Cultural Geography of the Llanos 
de Mojos of Bolivia (1966), and "Hydraulic Agriculture in the American Tropics" 
(1982), on ancient drained-field or raised-field agriculture in the tropics; Golson, 
"No Room at the Top: Agricultural Intensification in the New Guinea Highlands" 
(1977), on ancient drainage in highland New Guinea; Doolittle, Canal Irrigation in 
Prehistoric Mexico (1990), on drainage and early agriculture in Mexico; Harrison and 
Turner Pre-Hispanic Maya Agriculture (1978), on early drainage in the Maya 

80. Jones, The European Miracle (1981), pp. 8-9. 

81. Hall, Powers and Liberties (1985), pp. 12-13, 27-28, 36, 42-3, 53, 59, 99, 
102, 137. 

82. Hall, Powers and Liberties (1985), p. 11. Also see pp. 41, 123, 132. 

83. Mann, The Sources of Social Power (1986). Also see his essay, "European 
Development: Approaching a Historical Explanation" (1988). 

84. Mann, The Sources of Social Power (1986), p. 94. 

85. Mann, The Sources of Social Power (1986), p. 179. 

86. The fact that Mann attributes the ancient European takeoff mainly to 
chariot warfare and iron-plow rainfall-farming, yet concedes that both innovations 
were initiated by Middle Easterners themselves, suggests to me that Mann's 
fundamental causal reasoning centers on the notion of European rationality: 
regardless of who invented these things, the Europeans put the things to work. That 
this Weberian notion is indeed basic for Mann will be demonstrated later in this 

87. Bray, Agriculture, vol. 6, part 2, of Needham and collaborators, Science and 
Civilization in China (1984). 

88. Blaut, "Two Views of Diffusion" (1977). 

89. Mann, The Sources of Social Power (1986), pp. 247, 406, 408, 412, 504-510, 
520, 530, 539-540. 

90. Mann, The Sources of Social Power (1986), p. 509. 

91. Hall, Powers and Liberties (1985), p. 99. 

92. Hall, Powers andLiberties (1985), p. 110. 

93. Jones, The European Miracle (1981), p. 10. 

94. Jones, The European Miracle (1981), p. 47. 

95. Jones, The European Miracle (1981), p. 8. Jones makes the common error of 
assuming that productivity per worker is low in irrigated agriculture in comparison 
with unirrigated agriculture. This is not the case. Even with draft animals, medieval 
peasant production per worker was not high. And draft animals are used in irrigated 
farming, abundantly so in some Asian wet-rice farming systems. 


96. Mann, "European Development" (1988), p. 10, The Sources of Social Power 
(1986), p. 406; Jones, The European Miracle (1981), pp. 90, 227; Crone, Pre-lndustrial 
Societies (1989), p. 150; McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976), p. 295. 

97. Mann, The Sources of Social Power (1986, chap. 5). Mann in fact builds a 
theory of ancient warfare upon the basis of this sort of calculation, here also ignoring 
the fact that armies then as now provision themselves and their animals on the route 
of march. 

98. Jones, The European Miracle (1981), chap. 2 and elsewhere. Hall, Powers and 
Liberties (1985), p. 132, makes the same claim, citing Jones. 

99. Hall, Powers and Liberties (1985), p. Ill; Jones The European Miracle (1981), 
pp. 90, 105, 107, 226-227; Mann, "European Development: Approaching a Historical 
Explanation" (1988), p. 10; Mann, The Sources of Social Power (1986), p. 406. 

100. Occasionally "the criminal mind" was seen to reflect another dimension of 

101. Levy-Bruhl, How Natives Think (1966). 

102. See, for instance, Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (1938); Radin, Primitive 
Man as Philosopher (1927); M. Mead, Growing Up in New Guinea (1930). 

103. Stocking, Victorian Anthropology (1987), p. 59; Bowler, The Invention of 
Progress (1989), p. 66; Whitman "From Philology to Anthropology in Mid- 
Nineteenth-Century Germany" (1984); Bernal, Black Athena, vol. 1 (1987); Said, 
Orientalism (1978). A recent expression of this theory came in a Soviet debate about 
"Oriental despotism" (Lelekov, "Round-Table: State and Law in the Ancient 
Orient," 1978). L. Lelekov, a historian, claimed that words meaning "freedom" and 
"right" were basic in the original Indo-European language or languages but not in 
Near Eastern languages, and asserted that this must have affected "social thinking" (p. 
190). This contention was refuted by the philologist V. Ivanov (p. 193). 

104. See Dalai, "The Racism of Jung" (1988). In Jung's work, see in particular 
PsychologicalTypes (1971) (for instance: "[If] we go right back to primitive psychology, 
we find absolutely no trace of the concept of the individual," p. 10); Memories, 
Dreams, Reflections (1963), and "The Dreamlike World of India," in Civilisation in 
Transition (1927). See also the 1954 work by Jung's disciple Erich Neumann, The 
Origins and History of Consciousness (for instance: "The evolution of consciousness as 
a form of creative evolution is the peculiar achievement of Western man . . . The 
creative character of consciousness is a central feature of the cultural canon of the 
West ... In stationary cultures, or in primitive societies where the original features of 
human culture are still preserved, the earliest stages of man's psychology 
predominate," pp. xviii-xix). 

105. Piaget, Psychology and Epistemology (1971), p. 61. 

106. See, for example, Werner and Kaplan, Symbol Formation (1964). 

107. See the first 16 volumes (through 1985) of The Journal of Cross-Cultural 
Psychology for a great many examples of this phenomenon. For this period something 
like one-tenth of all the empirical articles in this U. S. journal were studies by white 
Southern Africans purporting to show the cognitive inferiority of black Africans. 

108. Rogers, The Diffusion of Innovations (1962); Rogers and Shoemaker, 
Communication of Innovations (1971), pp. 187-191; McClelland, The Achieving Society 
(1961); Hagen, On the Theory of Social Change (1962) and "A Framework for 
Analyzing Economic and Political Change," in Brookings Institution, ed., Develop- 


ment of the Emerging Countries: An Agenda for Research (1962), pp. 1-39. 1 have cited 
only the initial statements: much literature emerged from these works. 

109. S. Marglin, "Losing Touch: The Cultural Conditions of Worker 
Accommodation and Resistance," in F. and S. Marglin, eds., Dominating knowledge: 
Development, Culture, and Resistance (1990). 

110. Sack, Conceptions of Space in Social Thought (1980). Geographers 
prominent in the diffusion paradigm discussed here are L. Brown (The Diffusion of 
Innovations, 1981) and P. Gould (Spatial Diffusion, 1969). On peasant traditionalism 
in relation to natural hazards, see G. White, ed., Natural Hazards (1974), as an 
example of the abundant literature. I criticize these and other arguments about 
non- Western nonrationality in Blaut, "Two Views of Diffusion" (1977), "Diffusion- 
ism: A Unitarian Critique" (1987a), and "Natural Mapping" (1991). 

111. In the field of education in the United States the dominant standardized 
college entrance tests (SAT and ACT) are skewed by culture-specific and sex-specific 
internal (as well as situational) characteristics, such that women do more poorly than 
men although they actually perform at higher levels in terms of university grades, 
while the ACT and SAT test scores of Latinos (African- Americans have not yet been 
studied in this way), which are very low, have no correlation whatever with their 
performance in college. Thus the tests effectively minimize female and minority 
college attendance. Why the tests are almost universally used, even so, is a fascinating 
question. The same biases are so prominent in IQ testing that such tests have been 
barred as diagnostic instruments in California schools. The "primitive mind" and 
"primitive languages" biases sometimes combine, as in U.S. debates about the 
so-called "English-only" issue and about the question whether non-European 
literature deserves to be included in the college curriculum along with European 
literature. In Boston not long ago, 30% of Hispanic children aged six to eight were not 
attending elementary school because their inability to speak English had been judged 
to be evidence of mental retardation, and Boston claimed not to have sufficient 
resources to educate these children in "special schools." Testing in general in U. S. 
education remains very racist. 

112. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1980), and earlier works by 
Dewey (for instance The Quest for Certainty, 1929), Whitehead (for instance, Modes 
of Thought, 1938), and G. H. Mead (for instance, Philosophy of the Act, 1938). 

113. This is a general assessment. Some anthropologists continue to maintain 
either the "primitive mind" doctrine or the closely related "traditional mind" 
doctrine. An example of the latter is George Foster's well-known and influential book 
Traditional Cultures (1962), of the former, Hallpike's The Foundations of Primitive 
Thought (1979). For a critique, see Schweder, "Cultural Psychology: What Is It?" 

114. On the question of Weber's use of "rationality," its basal status in his 
theorizing, and yet its uncertain definition and provenance, see, for instance: Cohen's 
introduction to the 1981 ed. of Weber's General Economic History (1981), pp. 
xxv-xxvii; Lowith, Max Weber and Karl Marx (1982), pp. 40-42, 53-54, n. 49; 
Freund, The Sociology of Max Weber (1968), pp. 140-149. In Weber, see General 
Economic History ( 1 98 1 ) , chaps. 29, 30, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism 
(1958), pp. 13-31, 59-60, 79, 118-120, 191, n. 19, 265, n. 31, The Religion of China 
(1951), chap. 8, The Religion of India (1967), p. 387, and other works x . 

115. Weber, General Economic History (1981), p. 161. Also see pp. 339, 
355-368. Weber makes a large number of comments about the irrationality of Asians. 


116. Weber, Economy and Society, vol. 2 (1968), pp. 1212-1374. 

117. Numbers in parentheses are page numbers in The European Miracle. 

118. The ecologists' term "commensalism" refers to a form of tight interspecific 
cooperation between animal species, but hardly ever is it applied to humans. 

119. Typical of Jones's method is to find some objectionable feature of very early ' 
Asian society, compare it with some pleasing feature of modern, post-industrial- 
revolution European society, and then treat both features as though they were 
permanent characteristics of the respective societies, giving a picture of awful 
primitiveness to Asians and marvelous modernity to Europeans thereby. 

120. "Frankish feudalism, in many ways proto-typical of later feudalism, was . . . 
a mixture of the very, very old, deep-rooted drift of 'European' peasant society and of 
the brand new the opportunistic, the 'un-European,' " Mann, "European Develop- 
ment" (1988), p. 16. 

121. Mann, "European Development" (1988), p. 17. Also see his The Sources of 
Social Power (1986), for instance pp. 190, 195, 213, 377, 404, 412, 510. ("At the end 
of all these processes stood one organic, medium-sized, wet-soil island state, perfectly 
situated for take-off: Great Britain," p. 510.) 

122. Mann, "European Development" (1988), pp. 8-9, 11-12, 15-18 and The 
Sources of Social Power (1986) , pp. 377-378, 397-398, 402-408, 412, 500-510. Also, 
on Europe's rationality and its historical significance, see McNeill, Plagues and Peoples 
(1976), pp. 41, 97, 106-107, 236, 238, 249, 256, 259, 264. 

123. See P. Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974), part3; Finley, 
The Use and Abuse of History (1975), chap. 6; Aston and Philpin, The Brenner Debate 
(1985), pp. 32-33, 42-51, 59, 63n, 214-215, 234-236, 306-316. 

124. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), p. 38); also McNeill, 
Plagues and Peoples (1976), p. 234. 

125. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), p. 54. 

126. Kosambi, Ancient India (1969), p. 89; R. S. Sharma, Light on Early Indian 
Society and Economy (1966), p. 57. 

127. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), p. 44. 

128. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), p. 56; McNeill, 
Plagues and Peoples (1976), p. 237. 

129. See C. T. Smith, An Historical Geography of Western Europe (1967), p. 203; 
Darby, The Domesday Geography of Eastern England (1952). 

130. Orwin and Orwin, The Open Fields (1967), chap. 3; C. T. Smith, An 
Historical Geography of Western Europe (1967), chap. 4. 

131. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), p. 57. 

132. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), p. 67. 

133. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), p. 68. 

134. Bray, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 6, part 2, Agriculture (1984), pp. 

135. White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), p. 76. 

136. White, Machina Ex Deo (1968). See in particular the essay — quite a famous 
one — called "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" (chap. 5). 

137. White, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." In White, Machina 
Ex Deo (1967), p. 85. 

138. White, Machina Ex Deo (1967), p. 90. 

139. Needham et al., Science and Civilization in China (1954-1984). 

140. Some historians today simply ignore this evidence and repeat the old 
notions about China's lack of technological prowess. See, for example, Roberts, The 
Hutchinson History of the World ( 1 987 ), pp. 493-495 ,502. 


141. The terms "Middle Ages" and "medieval" are conventionally used for most 
or all parts of the Eastern Hemisphere. 

142. Needham et al., Science and Civilization in China, vol. 4, part 2 ( 1965), chap. 


143. Needham et al., Science and Civilization in China vol. 4, part 2 (1965), p. 
33). Arnold Pacey places the innovation in Korea. See Pacey's Technology in World 
History (1990), p. 56. 

144. See, for example, Lopez, "Hard Times and Investment in Culture" (1953), 
Thorndyke, "Renaissance or Prenaissance?" (1943). 

145. Cipolla, Guns, Sails, Empires (1965), p. 106. 

146. Cipolla, Guns, Sails, Empires (1965), pp. 108-109. 

147. Jones, The European Miracle (1981), p. 124. 

148. Among the modern states that do not surround such simple ecological core 
areas: Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, Greece, Sweden, Russia, etc. Prior to the 20th 
century, perhaps only parts of Great Britain (southern England) and France (the Paris 
Basin) came close to fitting this highly abstract model, a model that is useful for some 
purposes but not for the purpose of explaining the political history of the continent. 
Some of these core areas are nuclei of states; others are not. In modern Southeast Asia, 
Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia fit the model as well as any European case. 

149. In this connection, see Dirks, The Hollow Crown (1987). 

150. Hall, Powers and Liberties (1985), "States and Societies: The Miracle in 
Historical Perspective" (1988). 

151. Mann, The Sources of Social Power (1986), "European Development" 

152. This is not the only example of the way arguments centering on the 
European state have a way of contradicting one another. The Roman state is said, on 
the one hand, by Hall among others, to have been a crucial innovation, the source of 
many political features characteristic of, and only of, Europe. On the other hand, the 
Roman state is dismissed by others (including Mann) as just another "imperial state," 
like the despotic Oriental states; Europe supposedly innovated politically by avoiding 
the imperial form of state and developing instead a kind of smaller and somehow more 
democratic state. 

153. Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity: Caste and Feudality (India, Europe 
and Japan)" (1988). 

154. See, for instance, White, Machina Ex Deo (1968); Mann, The Sources of 
Social Power (1986), "European Development" (1988); Hall, Powers and Liberties 
(1985); Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity" (1988); K. F. Werner, "Political and 
Social Structures of the West" (1988); and Hallam, "The Medieval Social Picture" 

155. Hall, Powers and Liberties (1985), p. 135. 

156. Mann, "European Development" (1988), p. 12. 

157. Hallam, "The Medieval Social Picture" (1975), p. 49. 

158. K. F. Werner. "Political and Social Structures of the West" (1988), p. 172. 
This German medievalist argues that the central force underlying the "miracle" was 
Christianity. He refers here to the Catholic church, to the body of doctrine (Catholic 
and later also Protestant), to the social and political institutions that were influenced 
both by church and by doctrine, and to the faith of European people, which, in 
Werner's opinion, had much to do with their innovativeness, their sense of 
"restlessness," their rationality. Werner acknowledges that many causal factors were 
at work in bringing about the rise of Europe, and he does not hesitate to claim a role 
for the natural environment. But it is clear that his theory is primarily based on 


religion. And beyond this, one senses that this scholar himself may see the hand of a 
Christian god in the rise of Christian Europe. 

Werner first of all makes a strong case to the effect that European history 
maintained a continuity of institutions, and of progress, from the time of the Roman 
Empire down through the Middle Ages, and that the late Empire established both 
ecclesiastical and lay institutions which continued down through the Middle Ages 
and gave that era its character. Chief among the institutions is the Catholic church. 
Werner wishes to depict the church as having a determining influence on history from 
the time of its founding. He sees the rise of Europe as a process that was guided 
throughout by the Christian religion, as institution and doctrine. If Werner were 
simply presenting a theory of history that accords religion a dominant role, 1 would 
not be discussing his views in this book. I would agree that its role has been 
underemphasized by historians, conservative no less than Marxist. The reason I deal 
with Werner's views is that he makes clear his belief that it is not religion in general 
but the Christian religion which played the historically efficacious role in the 
European "miracle." Werner's views are distinctly Eurocentric. Perhaps the key 
comment is the following: 

[If] we had to choose one word that, by itself alone, were capable of expressing 
an essential factor in what we understand by the "European miracle," we would 
choose the philosophical term . . . "unrest" . . . "restlessness" . . . Ruhelosigkeit 
. . . Whilst Asia and its wisdom and, in its train, the great religions and 
philosophies, strive toward the art of . . . seeking out the centre of the soul and 
of the world, and of resting in God, of having arrived, the European of the 
European miracle is a man who is always ready to take off once more, once he 
has arrived . . . But where must be sought the causa causans of this mentality? 
The spur to anxiety is to be seen in the pangs of sin . . . in the search for pardon 
and grace. The importance of the deliverance of the soul gave an hitherto 
unheard-of prominence to the individual, independent of his social rank, the 
individual who . . . [does not abandon himself] to destiny . . . [The] sense of 
responsibility seems to me to be one of the strengths of the Europeans that are 
to accomplish the "miracle" (p. 185). 

Thus: Europe's religion, Christianity, instills a kind of mentality in "European man" 
which explains the basic source of the "European miracle." 

The objection to this is the same one we put forward to all of the notions about 
Europe's supposedly unique "rationality." Whether that putative trait comes from 
religion (Werner) or from the post-Neolithic European tribes (Mann) or from any 
other source, the basic objection is: how can you really justify a statement that makes 
Europeans brighter, better, bolder than non-Europeans, if you accept the fundamental 
axiom that all human communities have the same ration of mind as all others? It is 
one thing, and indeed an unexceptionable thing, to credit the human mind with 
prime causality in culture change, through the innovation of social, technical, and 
purely intellectual things. But it is something quite different, and quite suspect, to 
credit the minds of human beings from some communities — and not others — with all 
of these qualities of innovativeness, restlessness, sense of responsibility, intellectual 
eagerness, respect for others, and so on, qualities usually summed up in the word 
"rationality." Europeans are rational but so too are non-Europeans. 

159. See, for example, Palmer, Atlas of Modem History (1957); Bjtfrklund, 
H^lmhoe, R$hr, and Lie, Historical Atlas of the World (1970); and Kinder and 
Hilgemann, The Anchor Atlas of World History, vol. 1 (1974). 


160. 1 discuss this in The National Question (1987b). 

161. Padgug, "The Problem of the Theory of Slavery and Slave Society" (1976). 

162. Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity" (1988). 

163. Baechler, in "The Origins of Modernity" (1988), p. 39, suggests that we 
should "juxtapose the barbarous Europe of the Halstatt period [about 600 B.C.] . . . and 
Africa on the verge of colonization in the nineteenth century [a.D.]." 

164. Baechler finds a true aristocracy also in Japan but believes that Japan failed 
to emulate Europe for various other reasons. 

165. Baechler considers it quite unremarkable that the political chaos of the 
Dark Ages gave way smoothly to strong states in Europe. "Inevitably" there will be 
the "reconstitution of larger polities" (Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity" 1988, 
p. 50). But it is equally inevitable for India that the political chaos of 1000 years ago 
will not be cured and permanently, thereafter, the "polity ... is not a reality in India" 
(p. 45). 

166. Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity" (1988), p. 59. 

167. Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity" (1988), p. 53. 

168. Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity" (1988), p. 56. 

169. Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity" (1988), p. 45. 

170. Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity" (1988), p. 53. 

171. Godelier, Sobre el Modo de Produccidn Asidtico (1969), p. 58. 

172. Brenner, "The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of 
Neo-Smithian Marxism" (1977); "Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Develop- 
ment in Pre-Industrial Europe" (1985, originally published 1976), and "The Agrarian 
Roots of European Capitalism" (1985). After the 1976 article first appeared in the 
journal, Past and Present, a series of critiques was published in that journal, and 
Brenner replied in 1982 with the article, "The Agrarian Roots of European 
Capitalism." A volume, The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic 
Development in Pre-lndustrial Europe, containing the two Past and Present articles and 
several critiques, and edited by Aston and Philpin, appeared in 1985. 

173. In my opinion the popularity of this thin theory is due principally to two 
things. First, put forward as a Marxist view, grounded in class struggle, it proves to be, 
on inspection, a theory that is fairly conventional, if somewhat rural in bias. It seems 
to follows that class-struggle theories lead to conventional conclusions. And secondly, 
Brenner uses his theory ("The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of 
Neo-Smithian Marxism," 1977, pp. 77-92) to attack the unpopular "Third- Worldist" 
perspectives of dependency theory, underdevelopment theory, and in particular three 
other neo-Marxists — Sweezy, Frank, and Wallerstein — who argue that European 
colonialism had much to do with the later rise of capitalism. Brenner is a 
thoroughgoing Eurocentric tunnel historian: non-Europe had no important role in 
social evolution at any historical period. Unaware that colonialism involves capitalist 
relations of production — see Chapter 4 below — he claims that the extra-European 
world merely had commercial effects on Europe, whereas the rise of capitalism was in 
no way a product of commerce: it took place in the countryside of England and 
reflected class struggle, not trade. See critiques of Brenner collected in Aston and 
Philpin (1985) by Hilton, Croot and Parker, Wunder, Leroy, Ladurie, Bois, Cooper, 
and others. Also see Torras, "Class struggle in Catalonia" (1980) and Hoyle, "Tenure 
and the land market in early modern England: Or a late contribution to the Brenner 
debate." (1990). 

174. Taeuber, in Freedman, Family and Kinship in Chinese Society (1970). 

175. (1) If only one family member is a wageworker, loss of employment is a 
disaster. If several are wageworkers, normally some will be earning an income when 


others are laid off. (2) If we assume an ability to save a certain percentage of income, 
multiple income earners will provide a larger absolute amount of savings, that is, 
capital; and the absolute amount of capital can be critical in entrepreneurship. (3) 
Having kin to borrow from is useful for small-scale entrepreneurship. (4) Kinfolk can 
supply unpaid labor. These principles are well known in Third World communities. 

176. Hajnal, "European Marriage Patterns in Perspective" (1965), pp. 101-146. 
This paper is one of the most widely cited publications on the subject of demography 
in the European miracle literature. 

177. See note 37 above. 

178. Hajnal, "European Marriage Patterns in Perspective" (1965), p. 101. 

179. Hajnal, "European Marriage Patterns in Perspective" (1965), p. 134. 

180. Hajnal concedes that he has only contemporary data for non-Europe, but 
merely suggests that historical data would prove his point even more clearly because 
modern non-European family patterns, in his view, are changing in the direction of 
European patterns: are being Europeanized. And when "all the qualifications about 
the data have been made, there can be no doubt that our original generalization 
remains" ("European Marriage Patterns in Perspective," 1965, p. 106). 

181. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977), p. 509. 

182. Mann, The Sources of Social Power (1986), p. 408; Crone, Pre-lndustrial 
Societies (1989), p. 152; Jones, The European Miracle (1981), pp. 15-16; Macfarlane, 
Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840 (1986). 

183. Laslett, "The European Family and Early Industrialization" (1989). 
184- Taeuber, "The Families of Chinese Farmers" (1970), pp. 63-86. 

185. See Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society (1966), p. 49. 

186. See, for example, Handler "Review of Macfarlane, A., Marriage and love in 
England" (1989); Hilton, "Individualism and the English Peasantry" (1980); Kertzer, 
"The Joint Family Household Revisited: Demographic Constraints and Household 
Complexity in the European Past" (1989); and Berkner, "The Use and Misuse of 
Census Data for the Historical Analysis of Family Structures" (1975), and "The Stem 
Family and the Developmental Cycle of the Peasant Household" (1989). 

187. For instance, G. Lee, "Comparative Perspectives" (1987), p. 65, points out 
that "[Many] scholars contend that the majority of families in any society are and 
always have been nuclear, regardless of the cultural elements favoring extended 

188. Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism (1978), chap. 1 and "The 
Cradle of Capitalism" (1988), p. 344. 

189. See, for example, Hilton, "Individualism and the English Peasantry" 
(1980) and Handler, "Review of Mcfarlane, A., Marriage and Love in England" (1989). 

190. "[It] seems likely that [primitive peoples'] patterns of behavior in . . . 
respect [to fertility and mortality] bore a strong resemblance to those which can be 
observed in many animals," Wrigley, Population and History (1969), p. 37. Wrigley is 
writing about present-day hunting-gathering-fishing peoples. A "description of the 
relationship between animal social conventions and the regulation of animal 
population numbers" is "a convenient point of departure for the study of primitive 
man" (p. 37). 

191. Crone, Pre-lndustrial Societies (1989), p. 153; Hall, Powers andLiberties: The 
Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West (1985), pp. 130-132; Jones, The 
European Miracle (1981), pp. 3, 13-15, 217-19, 226-227, 231, and elsewhere; Laslett, 
"The European Family and Early Industrialization" (1989), pp. 235-240; Macfarlane, 
"The Cradle of Capitalism" (1988), chap. 14; Mann, The Sources of Social Power 
(1986), p. 408. 


192. Hall, Powers and Liberties (1985), pp. 130-131. 

193. Laslett, "The European Family and Early Industrialization" (1989), p. 237. 
194- See Croot and Parker, "Agrarian Class Structure and the Development of 

Capitalism: France and England Compared" (1985). This essay, and others in the 
Aston and Philpin book, The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic 
Development in Pre-lndustrial Europe (1985), discuss in detail the low level of 
landownership in medieval Europe. 

195. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977), pp. 

196. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977), p. 652. 


Before 1492 

n this chapter and the following one I will argue 
three broad propositions. 

1. Prior to 1492, the progress toward modernization and capitalism 
which was taking place in parts of Europe was also taking place in parts of 
Asia and Africa. The basic process was hemispheric in scale. It was a 
process of change out of a precapitalist, agrarian form of class-structured 
society and toward a primitive form of capitalism. There was nothing 
teleological about this process; it was not some sort of evolutionary 
striving toward a foreordained goal, capitalist society. Merely, I argue, 
whatever happened in Europe also happened in other parts of the Eastern 
Hemisphere. I will use the word "feudalism" to describe the class- 
structured agrarian societies of Africa and Asia as well as Europe (and will 
give my reasons for using this word in this way). The later, emerging 
formation I will call "protocapitalism." In 1492, it is likely that more than 
half of each continent in the Eastern Hemisphere was basically 
dominated by a feudal social formation. Protocapitalist centers were rising 
in various parts of all three continents, and were interconnected in a 
single web or network, stretching from western Europe to southern Africa 
to eastern Asia. 

2. This hemisphere-wide system began to break apart shortly after 
1492, because of the wealth and power acquired by Europeans in America. 
America was conquered by Europeans, not by Asians or Africans, because 
of Europe's location on the globe, not because of any European superiority 
in level or rate of development or "potential" for development. 

3. The massive flow of wealth into Europe from colonial accumula- 
tion in America and later in Asia and Africa was the one basic force that 
explains the fact that Europe became transformed rapidly into a capitalist 
society, and the complementary fact that Asian and African protocapital- 


BEFORE 1492 

ist centers began to decline first in relative and then in absolute impor- 
tance. Development began in Europe and underdevelopment began else- 
where. Many processes internal to Europe were important causes of 
change, of development, in that continent, but the one basic process, 
which ignited and then continuously fueled the transformation, was the 
wealth from colonialism. 

The first proposition is the topic of the present chapter; the second and 
third are the topics of Chapter 4. 

I will not and cannot demonstrate the truth of these propositions. I 
will simply present a substantial amount of evidence that supports them, 
and will show that the propositions fit in with other known facts in a 
coherent theory — a theory that, I suggest, makes sense. That is as far 
toward "demonstration of truth" as I can go, given the evidence of which 
I have knowledge and the amount of detailed argumentation that can be 
squeezed into this chapter. Some parts of this argument (such as the 
pre- 1492 development of Africa) will theorize well beyond the available 
evidence, because, in my view, the facts needed to confirm or disconfirm 
these parts of the argument have not yet been obtained, have not yet been 
sought with sufficient diligence by diffusionist scholarship. For the most 
part, however, the theorizing will be grounded in strong empirical 
evidence. In addition to this evidence, there is the weight of evidence 
presented in the last chapter against various opposing theories, those that 
deny the importance of non-Europe before and after 1492. This has given 
us, so to speak, a level playing field for considering the issues to be 
discussed below. 


Before 1492, the various civilizations of Asia, Africa, and Europe were 
very different from one another in many ways, but they were very like one 
another in other ways. I believe that the ways in which they were different 
did not have significance for cultural evolution. 1 In Chapter 2 I outlined 
various theories that claim that particular differences between Europe and 
other civilizations do explain the unique rise of Europe, and I tried to show 
that these theories are unconvincing. In the following discussion I will 
deal with some parts of culture that clearly are crucial for cultural 
evolution, and I will try to show that the patterns found in medieval 
Europe were not significantly different from the patterns found in other 
civilizations. I will argue that modes of production, class structures, 
systems of spatial exchange, and urbanization were broadly similar across 


many civilizations, were evolving in much the same way, and to some 
extent were parts of a common hemisphere-wide process. 

During the century or so preceding 1492, most of humanity lived in 
class-stratified agricultural societies. The great majority of people in these 
societies were peasant farmers, producing their own subsistence and 
forced to deliver a significant share of their output (or labor, or cash 
income) to an elite, or ruling class, a class that usually held claim to the 
land and almost always held both formal and real power over the peasants. 
What I have described here is a mode of production, that is, a complex of 
traits including material resources such as land, material culture (tools 
and the like), labor employed in production and distribution, social rules 
governing access to material resources and distribution of the output, and 
some related traits. For medieval Europe this mode of production is called 
"feudal." It is part of a larger concept, "feudal society." One of the 
important features of European feudal society was the nature of states and 
political power. Another was the culture of the landlord class, with its 
titles, its chivalry, and the rest. A third was the importance, in some 
regions and epochs, of serfdom. But underlying (or at any rate 
accompanying) these features was the general fact of feudalism as a mode 
of production, a landlord-peasant, class-stratified, agricultural society in 
which the landlord class was fed by surplus extracted (always with some 
degree of force) from peasant producers. This mode of production, with 
variations, was also a basic feature of almost all of the other class-stratified 
agricultural societies of the Eastern Hemisphere. 2 I will therefore use the 
term "feudal mode of production" for all such societies. 

Others have used the term in this way but have encountered various 
important objections. Those scholars who insist that the peculiarly 
European features are, indeed, the evolutionary engines of change will 
naturally reject the description of other sorts of society as "feudal." Max 
Weber, for instance, thought that European feudal estates were unique 
and were crucial causes (or conditions) of progress. Those Marxists who 
consider serfdom to be a crucial feature in evolutionary terms would not 
want to use the term "feudalism" for societies that did not have serfdom 
(although many outside of Europe did). 3 Samir Amin rejects this broad 
usage of the term "feudalism," on the grounds that it tends to require of us 
that we use European feudalism as a model against which to measure other 
similar societies in other continents. Therefore, he prefers the term 
"tributary" to the term "feudal," arguing, correctly, that the various forms 
of surplus extraction in this mode of production (tax and rent; cash, labor, 
and product) can be assimilated to the concept of tribute paying. 4 My 
view is that Eurocentric historians do not have a copyright on the term 
"feudalism" and so it is not only valid but also in a sense just to use this 

BEFORE 1492 

term for the mode of production wherever we observe it, in any continent 
and any social formation. There remain other objections. What of the 
small urbanized societies found here and there across the map during this 
period? We will come to this matter in a later section of the chapter. 
How should we describe societies that are very aberrant from the basic 
landlord-peasant model? What about class-stratified pastoral societies? 
What about the class-stratified societies in which there is kinship linkage 
between producing class and ruling class? These matters of definition are 
important and I will try to deal with them in the context of the 

There are many unanswered questions about the origins and 
evolution both of agriculture and of the feudal mode of production. Until 
recently most scholars believed that agriculture, class stratification, and 
many other attributes of civilization had originated in the ancient Near 
and Middle East. (We discussed this in Chapter 1.) Given this set of 
propositions, combined with explicit and implicit beliefs about the 
cultural backwardness and unprogressiveness of Asians and Africans, it 
was almost axiomatic that the agricultural landscapes of feudal Europe 
must have attained a qualitatively higher level of development — or, 
alternatively, must have had greater potential for rapid change — than 
those of many parts, and perhaps all parts, of medieval Asia and Africa. It 
seemed logical to believe that agriculture as such was still in the^process 
of diffusing outward in some peripheral parts of the hemisphere during 
that period. For instance, as we noted in Chapter 2, historians tended to 
believe that most of southern Africa was "preagricultural" even in early 
modern times. Scholars speculated, and legitimately so given the basic 
model, as to the dates when agriculture in general, and each form of 
domesticated plant and animal in particular, had first reached each 
peripheral region in the general diffusion process. 

This model began to crumble fairly recently. Very early dates for the 
Agricultural (Neolithic) Revolution began to appear for parts of 
Southeast Asia, dates of perhaps 9,000 years ago (the generally accepted 
idea is that agriculture in the Middle East is 10-12,000 years old). Pottery 
seemed to be just about that old in northeastern Asia and Japan. Soon 
afterward, very early dates for agriculture emerged for India, New Guinea, 
and other regions. 5 Today, although the majority view still seems to be 
that agriculture first arose in the Middle East, very many scholars believe 
otherwise. Many argue for independent and perhaps simultaneous origins 
in the Middle East and Southeast Asia; some would add West Africa. But 
it is also possible that the Agricultural Revolution occurred everywhere 
more or less at once. 6 By this I mean that the complex of crops, animals, 
' tools, and ideas was being developed in many societies simultaneously 


(probably over a very long period), and each new trait tended to diffuse 
rapidly to those other parts of the hemisphere in which such a trait was a 
useful innovation, in an overall process that I call "criss-cross diffusion." 
This process gradually built up an agricultural landscape over a vast region 
of the hemisphere, extending (with unimportant gaps) across the entire 
swathe of tropical and midlatitude lands possessing moderately favorably 
climate and soil.? 

In any event, it is now generally accepted that the diffusion of 
agriculture took place fairly long ago and by the Middle Ages agriculture 
had reached most of those regions in the Eastern Hemisphere in which 
environmental conditions are favorable for farming. Agriculture was still 
spreading at this time, but it could no longer be considered the Agricul- 
tural Revolution. Farming had been pushed poleward to a point not far 
short of its present latitudinal limits. In the Western Hemisphere the 
northern limit of maize in 1492 was not far south of the present limit of 
grain cultivation in central Canada. In both hemispheres almost all of the 
crops and livestock types that are important today had already been 
domesticated, although varietal improvement was still going on. As a 
generalization, it can be argued that each agricultural region had by this 
time selected for itself, from the long list of hemispheric domesticates, the 
combination of crops and stock best suited to its environmental conditions 
and cultures; most groups of related domesticated crop forms in any one 
part of the hemisphere were also known in many other parts. 

One very dramatic bit of evidence in this matter was the swift spread 
of Western Hemisphere crops through the Eastern Hemisphere after 
1492. This extremely rapid diffusion of maize, cassava, tobacco, sweet 
potato, white potato, and other crops, and the rapid way in which these 
domesticates became culturally important, shows how rapidly the 
diffusion of domesticates would occur when the process was one of the 
diffusion of previously unknown innovations: we can assume that most 
Eastern Hemisphere domesticates were no longer diffusing very rapidly. 
Where agriculture was spreading, it was taking place mainly in peripheral 
zones such as highlands, some forested regions, and remote islands, as a 
result mainly of social processes like migration, conquest, and land 
shortage. 8 In the years before 1492, agriculture was practiced, from 
southern Africa to northern Europe, northern Asia, southeastern Asia, 
and most regions of the Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii. For the most 
part, cultures we would describe as "nonagricultural" had chosen not to 
practice farming; they were not, therefore, "preagricultural." 9 

Probably the same holds true for the more complex forms of 
agricultural technology. The knowledge of irrigation, the plow, the use of 
fertilizers, complex rotations (including fallowless rotations), and other 

BEFORE 1492 

features of intensive agriculture had probably diffused by this time to all 
those parts of the agricultural landscape where farmers found it desirable 
to use them, either to increase output, to reduce labor requirements, to 
meet the demand for surplus delivery, or for any cultural reason 
whatever. 10 I would take the argument even a step farther. Throughout 
most of this landscape the diffusion of significant innovations had gone so 
far that the productivity of human labor was hardly ever limited by lack 
of technical knowledge of a kind available to other farmers in some other 
part of the hemisphere. 11 But this is speculation. 

Agricultural societies are not always class stratified. But there is 
abundant evidence that most agricultural regions across the hemisphere 
displayed, in this period, a combination of agriculture and the 
landlord-peasant system of stratification, thus a mode of production I 
label "feudal." This point will be contested on two grounds. One of the 
objections, commonly heard from (some) Marxists, argues that medieval 
non-European agricultural modes of production were somehow lacking in 
the potential for change that we associate with the European feudal mode. 
This argument (the "Asiatic mode of production," "Oriental despotism," 
etc.) was discussed sufficiently in Chapter 2. 

The second difficulty is a matter of the spatial pattern. Where, on 
the map of the medieval Eastern Hemisphere, do we find class-stratified 
agricultural societies, and where do we find classless agricultural societies? 
The answer must be given in two parts. First, we know beyond dispute 
that the class-stratified mode was dominant in nearly all agricultural 
regions of Asia, with clear patterns of landlord-peasant conflict. 
Arguments tend to focus on Africa. But there is little doubt that the 
landlord-peasant exploitative relation was dominant in much of 
northeastern Africa (for example, Ethiopia), the Sudanic zone from the 
Atlantic east beyond Lake Chad, some parts of the Lake Region of East 
Africa, southeastern Africa around the Zimbabwe imperial zone, and part 
of coastal East Africa. It is now known, also, that many of the forest- zone 
and dry-forest-zone states of West and Central Africa (Akan, Yoruba, 
Congo, and so forth), displayed this mode of production or something 
very like it, and research on the historical geography of this large region 
has just, in essence, begun. 12 Therefore the map of the feudal mode of 
production in Africa is very extensive. Second, I would argue (following 
Samir Amin) that nearly all state-organized societies were class societies, 
that the medieval state functioned in a tight relationship to the 
exploitative process and ruling-class politics. More than half of medieval 
Africa, in terms of area and population, was state-organized and therefore, 
I reason, more or less class stratified. I conclude, from this very sketchy 
examination of the medieval spatial patterns of agriculture, technically 


complex agriculture, and class, that the feudal mode of production 
dominated more than half of Africa, Europe, and Asia, and some parts of 
Oceania, in this period. 

The ruling class in feudal societies is, almost everywhere, a landlord 
class, although the control of land by this class may take any of several 
legal forms. Some members of this class are bedecked with titles, but the 
distinction between nobility and gentry is not crucial in evolutionary 
terms and both forms (as well as others) were widespread across the 
hemisphere. 13 This class is, after all, self-perpetuating, and it may use 
inherited titles as a signal of class membership or it may use other devices 
to the same effect, or both. Indeed, membership in the nontitled gentry 
may, as in China at various times, improve a family's chances of retaining 
ruling-class status and wealth amid the changing winds of state politics. 
Nor is the distinction critical, in this context, between higher and lower 
grades of nobility, and between landlords and government officials (who 
likewise derive their wealth from land). As we discussed in Chapters 1 
and 2, there is no substance to the traditional view that the European 
medieval landlord class somehow was closer to pure private land 
ownership than were the landlord classes of other places. Marx was wrong 
in accepting this traditional view, because he knew little about 
non-European class structures. Weber, likewise, was wrong in drawing a 
sharp distinction between the supposedly European pattern of seigneurial 
tenure, with land held firmly by the landlord under some sort of 
arrangement with higher-order lords and kings, and the "service tenures" 
which he thought to be characteristic of most other societies. 

The distinction between hereditary and service tenures is very fuzzy. 
In Europe, service tenure was the typical form in strict terms (with grants 
conditional upon pledges of fealty, military support, etc.), but grants 
tended to become hereditary. Broadly, the same held true in other 
societies. Holders of fiefs or grants on service tenure might move from fief 
to fief (or hold a changing portfolio of fiefs), but the important point is 
that class membership permitted one to hold a fief, and to draw one's 
wealth from it (and its occupants), so long as one retained membership in 
the ruling class. In a crucial sense, property is private so long as an 
individual or kin group continues to hold valid control, and this was the 
case in many regions, in spite of periodic upheavals and replacements. But 
land can be called private in another sense, that of its value in a land 
market. But this implies a basically (or nearly) capitalist situation, found 
only in a few highly commercialized rural regions, European and 
non-European, before 1492. ^ The Chinese gentry, the Hindu fief- 
holders, even the Mughal jagirdars who had been granted fiefs on service 
tenure and quickly farmed them out, or converted them into private, 

BEFORE 1492 

heritable property, all displayed the classic features of a feudal landlord 
class. 15 The European feudal-era landlord class was not more advanced, 
more ready (as it were) for capitalism and modernity, than the landlord 
classes in many other regions. 

The so-called European manorial system is sometimes said to have 
been a distinguishing feature of feudalism, a peculiarly European giant 
step toward private ownership and large-scale labor use, something largely 
absent from non-European areas and critical in the evolution toward 
capitalism. Large estates were widespread across the hemisphere, but the 
special organizational form of demesne farming by unpaid peasant labor 
was found in fewer areas. The manorial system in the narrow sense of the 
term, including coordinated demesne farming with corvee labor in gangs 
as well as peasant holdings, and with some manufacture along with 
agricultural production on the manor, was found in several areas outside 
of Europe. It was important in China and in southern India. 16 But 
demesne farming was not dominant throughout Europe (it was 
uncommon in the Mediterranean zone), bore no resemblance to capitalist 
agriculture, and in any case had nearly died out in western Europe by the 
fourteenth century. Hence the relatively stronger development of this 
trait in Europe than most other regions (such as northern India) cannot 
account for the transition, much later, to capitalism in one area and not 
the others. 

Related to this question is the old European misdefinition of Indian 
villages, unfortunately accepted by Marx, as closed, corporate entities 
(hence, for Marx, as survivals of primitive communal society). The 
medieval Indian village did indeed have corporate characteristics; it did 
have communal control of usufruct (though not, apparently, communal 
ownership); and it did display the tight combination of farming and 
handicrafts which Marx found to be highly significant and seemed, to 
him, to explain the cohesiveness of the village, its ability to remain 
unchanged in the face of external shocks from colonial capitalism, yet, by 
the same token, to resist social transformation. But European villages also 
retained certain corporate characteristics, perhaps even more pronounced 
than those of Hindu villages, where caste communities correlated very 
poorly with village settlement patterns. 17 In this matter we may be 
confronting the classic error of telescoping history, perceiving the 
breakup of the European village after the rise of capitalism, and assuming 
therefore that these villages had been dissolving as corporate entities 
many centuries earlier. Furthermore, communal land ownership was 
relatively unimportant in this period for both India and Europe; the 
villages normally held only delegated rights (including the right to 
common land), which could be and sometimes were violated by 


landlords. The true owners of most of the productive land, holders of 
hereditary and transferrable estates, were, in both areas, the ruling class. 
Finally, the combination of agriculture and handicrafts was also present in 
European villages. 18 Apparently it dissolved well after 1492 with the rise 
of capitalism. In sum, although Indian feudalism was in no sense identical 
to the European variety (or varieties), it bore the same general 
characteristics as a mode of production and the same potential for 
evolution toward capitalism. This argument can probably be made also for 
many regions of Asia and Africa. The medieval European village seems 
not to have been very unusual among the array of village settlement and 
social forms across the hemisphere. 

The producing class in feudalism consists, usually, of peasants, who 
farm the landlord's estate in household-scale units and provide labor, 
produce, or cash as rent. Serfdom is often thought to be the characteristic 
labor form of feudalism, on the European model. 19 Serfs of the basically 
European sort were indeed found here and there in Africa and Asia, 
although the specific history of enserfment in late-Roman Europe was 
unique and its legal form was rarely encountered elsewhere. What we 
find, rather, is a panorama of forms of unfree labor, that is, labor of 
peasants tied somehow to the landlord's estate, through all three 
continents. 20 On the other hand, some scholars (among them Brenner, a 
Marxist, and Baechler, a conservative) rather idealize the European 
peasant of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in western Europe and 
see in that person a freehold farmer, imbued with the entrepreneurial 
spirit and so forth. 21 This is again a telescoping of history. Those peasants 
were tenants, still tied to estates in manifold ways; not until later times, 
well after 1492, was there a strong emergence of an important freehold, 
capital-accumulating, kulak-style class, ready for rural capitalism. The 
European peasant was not particularly unusual. Peasants who were forced 
to give labor service, or product, or cash, as rent or tribute or tax (paid to 
the landlord), who were not free to move from the landlord's domain, and 
whose status was inherited by later generations, were found in many parts 
of medieval Asia and Africa as well as Europe. 

There was a measure of interconnectedness among the feudal 
agricultural societies, enough to suggest that we should think of the 
whole hemisphere-wide zone of class-based agricultural societies not as 
separate social entities but as a single feudal landscape with regional 
variations that sometimes included sharp boundaries and sometimes did 
not. Clearly there was a great deal of criss-cross diffusion among these 
regions, as evidence, for instance, the commonality of agricultural 
techniques over large areas. (The claim made by some European 
historians, 22 that medieval European agriculture was unique in 

BEFORE 1492 

technological level and thus somehow ignited progress toward capital- 
ism, is invalid, as we discussed in Chapter 2. European agriculture shared 
most traits with other regions and was not uniquely advanced or peculiarly 
pregnant with social change.) It seems likely that the evolution of 
feudalism over much of the hemispheric landscape involved a steady 
deepening of the oppression on peasants, as more and more surplus was 
demanded, and the response by peasants included technological 
development and borrowing (diffusion), as well as migration toward 
peripheral regions and toward towns. At the same time, the ruling classes, 
as they exhausted the potential of their own subjects to increase surplus 
delivery, tried to conquer and exploit other communities of producers, 
to acquire external as well as internal fields of exploitation, and this also 
led to further interconnectedness of regions. 23 Yet, at the same time, feudal 
ruling class communities were united in webs of kinship, or bureaucracy, 
or caste, which sometimes extended over very large areas. We know that 
the neat parceling of societies into nation-states did not exist in those 
times, that language regions were ill-defined and language barriers of little 
significance, even that religious differences did not set up barriers to the 
movement of ideas, things, and people. Thus we should think of all (or 
most) feudal societies as sharing a common space, through which social 
forces and pressures diffused in all directions, over great distances, easily 
crossing the boundaries of states. Given this conception, it is not difficult 
to understand why the general evolution of feudalism as a mode of 
production was proceeding in about the same way over much of the 

In the late Middle Ages there were signs of profound change in many 
agricultural regions of all three continents. There were indications of two 
sorts: signs of decay, or even imminent collapse, in the feudal system, and 
signs of change toward commercialized agriculture and toward rural 
capitalism. Throughout much of the hemisphere, the mode of production 
appears to have been in a state of decay, and we find increasing exactions, 
peasant revolts, migrations to agricultural frontiers and towns, intense 
warfare among ruling classes for access to producer populations, and more. 
By the fourteenth century, feudalism had entered a stage of crisis — 
although not of collapse — in Europe, but it appears that there were similar 
crises in parts of Asia and probably — as we will doubtless learn from 
further research — Africa. 24 In all three continents there was a movement 
of peasants to the towns, perhaps at roughly comparable rates. In no large 
region, European or non-European, could this have become a flood of 
rural-urban migrants, since urban population was still a small percentage 
of total population everywhere at the end of the fifteenth century. Still, 
it was an effect of crises in the rural areas. Whether these crises were 


indications that the mode of production was truly near collapse, and this 
from internal contradictions, perhaps cannot as yet be decided, but in any 
case feudalism in Europe was no closer to its final demise, prior to 1492, 
than were the feudalisms of many extra-European regions. 

At this point in the argument, a disclaimer and a speculation. I am 
not arguing that the landlord-peasant mode of production had somehow 
gone through its allotted historical span and was about to collapse, or to 
transform itself into capitalism. The question whether capitalism had its 
earliest growth in an urban setting or a rural setting is a very complex one 
indeed; I will discuss the matter further below but I do not propose any 
sort of general historical theory of causation. I will argue only that the 
transition, or decay, or whatever one wants to call it, was far from 
complete in 1492, and the wealth from America precipitated the rise of 
capitalism and, simultaneously, the final decay of the feudal mode of 
production in Europe. 

I speculate as follows: Given our overall model of an extremely rapid 
criss-cross diffusion of the cultural traits of agriculture (crops, stock, tools, 
water-management systems, etc.), and given the parallel conception of 
tight and intricate interlacing among class-organized agricultural societies 
in the medieval Eastern Hemisphere, one would expect that the general 
growth and evolution of the class-stratified agricultural form of society 
would proceed in a relatively even manner from one region to the next, as 
traits diffused, as social pressures were transmitted in space by migration, 
conquest, and the like, as ruling-class alliances proliferated, and so on. 
Perhaps the evolution of this feudal mode of production was everywhere 
conditioned by one common social fact: the steady and unrelenting 
demand of the landlord class and its allies (merchants, nobility, etc.) for 
more and more wealth, a demand that translated into constant pressure 
on peasants to increase production so that they could increase delivery of 
surplus. I view this as a long-term secular trend that led to specific 
responses in the peasant sector, including technological development, 
criss-cross diffusion of technology, assarting and pioneering, peasant 
revolts, rural-urban migration, participation in ruling-class military 
adventures, and more. I speculate, then, that these mechanisms evened 
out the social tensions that were created in many places by the increasing 
ruling-class demand for delivery of surplus. This would allow us to argue 
that, if the mode of production was in decay or in crisis in one part of the 
hemisphere, very likely the same was the case in many other parts of the 
hemisphere. In a word: the mode of production rose and then ebbed on a 
hemispheric scale, and what was happening in Europe in 1492 was also 
happening in Africa and Asia. 

But why would we expect the feudal mode of production to decay or 

BEFORE 1492 

decline? This is the final point of speculation. We cannot assert simply 
that feudalism is a "stage" of evolution, and must eventually give way to 
the next, higher "stage" of evolution (capitalism), as some mechanistic 
Marxists argue. Nor can we accept the conservative form of this argument, 
which sees feudalism giving way to a higher and more "modern" form of 
society (capitalism) as a result of humanity's inevitable forward progress, 
social, intellectual, and moral. Nor can we invoke a Malthusian force of 
inevitably heightening population pressure (a thesis which was shown to 
be false in Chapter 2, on grounds mainly that human cultures always 
control their demographic behavior, more or less rationally). I would 
propose the following explanatory model. There are two essential facts 
about this form of society: first, the fact of family-scale farming as a way of 
life; second, the fact of a landlord class extracting, or trying to extract, an 
ever-increasing absolute surplus from farmers. Peasant farmers respond to 
this pressure in many ways, as we noted above. They certainly try to 
increase their population so long as each additional human being in the 
community can produce the requisite surplus, that is, contribute labor 
which yields more production than is needed for consumption by the 
incremental member of the community and for that individual's 
contribution to surplus delivery. Certainly they try to add additional land 
for cultivation, and sometimes try to move to another location, seeking 
agricultural or other land. But mainly they intensify. That is, they increase 
agricultural productivity by continuously experimenting with new crop 
varieties, new tools, new techniques, and they are ever on the alert for 
news about innovations that have been tried successfully elsewhere — in 
the next village, the next valley, the next island. 

The process of technological improvement has no limit, but a point 
will be reached when the rate of increase in labor productivity declines, 
generation by generation, century by century. Doubtless the rate was at its 
highest during the period when many new crops and stock types were 
being domesticated at a rapid rate, and when the main tools, and iron, 
were being brought into the system. By the Middle Ages, the rate of 
improvement overall would have declined to a level insufficient to permit 
farmers to meet the landlords' incremental demands for surplus. If we set 
aside some of the alternative responses, such as pioneering and 
rural-urban migration, which must have been available in some regions 
but not in others, we are left with the following situation: a general crisis 
in the feudal mode of production. 

Now this discussion has been grounded in one assumption: that 
improvements in agricultural production are taking place through 
innovations mainly on the farm itself. This is largely the case for 
family-scale farming in medieval and premedieval times. Of course, 


production is also improved by importing water and nutrients into the 
farm through irrigation or drainage. And always there is some off-the-farm 
sale or other exchange of products, and sale or exchange of products from 
the farm for inputs like fertilizer, seed, and labor. So the individual 
peasant farm, or family farm, is a relatively but not absolutely 
self-contained microgeographic system. We know very well, and farmers 
in those days also knew very well, that the best strategy for engineering a 
dramatic increase in production from a microgeographic system like the 
peasant farm is to integrate it more fully into a larger, macrogeographic 
system. Mainly this involves increasing the input of water and fertility 
elements, like lime and manure, and changing the pattern of crops and 
stock from one which must primarily feed the farm family to one which 
can involve some specialization in products that are saleable and that are 
well-suited to the ecological conditions of the farm. (This would 
commonly mean some specialization in one or a few food products, which 
are both sold and consumed, or specialization in an industrial product, 
like cotton.) When, today, we speak of the "agricultural revolution" of 
recent centuries, we are describing a revolution at this macrogeographic 
level: modern family farms import huge amounts of fertility; they import 
(purchase) many tools, pesticides, and like elements which are produced 
elsewhere; they use substantial amounts of nonfamily labor; and they 
specialize in ways that (sometimes) involve ecological optimization. This 
list pretty much exhausts the revolutionary changes that occurred prior to 
the present century, and it suggests that internal, microgeographic 
improvements — which never ceased to take place — played a secondary 
role at this stage in the development of agriculture. 

For these macrogeographic improvements to take place there must 
be a high level of commercialization of farming, because moving things into 
and out of the farm microsystem (or at any rate the village microsystem) 
is mainly a process of buying and selling. It would seem to follow that a 
general crisis of the feudal mode of production would have one of two 
possible outcomes. One of these is a relatively smooth transition to an 
economy in which there is massive off-the-farm cash demand for farm 
products and supply of purchasable inputs, along with cash payment of 
rent (or payment on shares to a landlord who then markets the share for 
cash). This scenario takes place in a landscape in which there is a large 
nonagricultural population, hence a landscape that is either urbanizing or 
participating in major long-distance trade. Stated differently: the crisis 
can be met if commercialization and urbanization are taking place. 
Alternatively, there can be revolutionary changes of another sort: peasant 
revolts, either mild (such as withholding of rent) or violent, major 
cultural transformation in social, political, or religious life, or something 

BEFORE 1492 

else equally revolutionary. Perhaps both alternatives must occur in some 
combination for the crisis to be resolved. I conclude that the rather clear 
pattern in which feudal contradictions intensify, as a result of increasing 
demands for surplus and decreasing ability of farm families to increase the 
level of surplus, must lead to a revolutionary change of some sort. Most of 
the changes that I have mentioned did, in fact, occur in Europe in the late 
Middle Ages and involved the overthrow of feudalism as a political and 
social system and its replacement by the modern system after the model of 
England's "Glorious Revolution." But I am not arguing that this rural set 
of processes explains the rise of capitalism. Certainly it contributed to the 
rise of capitalism, and specifically to the processes of increasing 
urbanization and increasing long-distance commodity movements which 
characterized the late Middle Ages throughout the hemisphere, processes 
which I label "protocapitalist," and which we discuss in the following 
section of this chapter. 


I use the word "protocapitalism" not to introduce a technical term but to 
avoid the problem of defining another term, "capitalism." Obviously, the 
kind of economic system that we ordinarily think of as capitalist did not 
exist in the Middle Ages; we are dealing with its forebear, which (as I will 
argue) exhibited most of the basic traits of capitalism, but on a spatially 
and socially small scale, and generally within, or on the edge of, a much 
larger, dominant economic system associated with the feudal mode of 
production. Protocapitalism, therefore, is incipient capitalism, or near- 
capitalism, or adolescent capitalism. It is the system as it existed prior to 
the two revolutionary transformations which brought modern capitalism 
into existence. The first of these was the political transformation which 
is usually, and conventionally, called "the bourgeois revolution" or 
"bourgeois revolutions" — the creation of large polities that were 
dominated, not by the feudal landlord class, but by an elite of townsmen 
(burghers, bourgeoisie) and their entrepreneurial allies in the countryside. 
The most famous example, and in a way the defining case, was Britain's 
"Glorious Revolution" of 1688, and I will use the date 1688 as the symbol 
or token for the political triumph of capitalism. The second transforma- 
tion was, of course, the Industrial Revolution, which did not really begin 
in a big way until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In Chapter 
4 we will examine the role played by colonialism and non-Europe in both 
of these transformations. 


In all three continents we find relatively small rural regions (they 
were generally hinterlands of major port cities) along with a few highly 
commercialized agricultural and mining regions, which were clearly 
being penetrated by capitalism — were protocapitalist — in the period just 
prior to 1492. Among these were Flanders, southeastern England, 
northern Italy, sugar-planting regions of Morocco, the Nile valley, the 
Gold Coast, Kilwa, Sofala (and hypothetically part of Zimbabwe), 
Malabar, Coromandel, Bengal, northern Java, and south-coastal China. 
Land was owned by commerce-minded landlords or by urban protocapi- 
talists. 25 Rents were generally paid in cash except in those areas, like 
Fukien, where more money profit could be extracted by landlords if they 
collected the farm produce and sold it themselves. 26 Agricultural 
production was organized in various ways, ranging from peasant-scale 
farming to plantations, and very significant quantities of a number of 
agricultural products were grown, sold, and exported: rice, cotton, sugar, 
pepper, etc. Industrial production was spreading out into the countryside 
in all three continents: the early putting-out system was actually 
de-urbanizing industry in northwestern Europe, as the control by guilds 
became loosened; probably the same was occurring in parts of Asia and 
Africa (where merchant and artisan guilds were also well developed and 
strong in the Middle Ages). 27 Over a much broader area, commodity 
production had fully penetrated the agricultural economy, and it is 
extremely doubtful whether west European peasant agriculture was more 
highly commercialized than that of many parts of China and India, as 
well as some other extra-European regions. Probably we can assume that 
level of urbanization is a good comparative indicator of level of 
agricultural commercialization for this period, since it must represent the 
main off-the-farm demand for agricultural products. By this measure, 
Chinese and Indian agriculture would have been more highly 
commercialized than European agriculture, because a larger percentage 
of total population was urban in those regions. 

Cities dotted the landscape from northern Europe to southern Africa 
to eastern Asia. Some of these cities were seats of power for major feudal 
societies. Others were socially and geographically marginal to these 
societies, and were usually to be found along sea coasts, where they had 
mainly an interstitial relationship to the larger feudal societies, moving 
and trading goods among them and producing manufactured commodities 
for them. Probably it would be incorrect to speak of two distinct classes of 
urban place, internal and marginal (or peripheral), because many 
variations and gradations existed, and also because the internal, 
seat-of-power cities were in many cases also major centers for intersocietal 
trade and for nonagricultural production. Nevertheless, we can distin- 

BEFORE 1492 

guish a special group of cities that were strongly oriented toward 
manufacturing and trade, were more or less marginal to powerful feudal 
states (some were within these states; some were small city-dominated 
states or even city-states), and were heavily engaged in long-distance 
maritime trade. Cities of this sort stretched around all of the coasts of 
western Europe, the Mediterranean, East Africa, and South, Southeast, 
and East Asia. In these cities the mode of production could probably be 
best described as incipient capitalism, protocapitalism — certainly it was 
not feudalism — with wageworkers being, apparently, the largest working- 
class sector, merchants, merchant— landlords, or merchant— manufacturers 
the ruling class, and economic activity a mixture of trade (movement of 
commodities, banking, and so on), manufacture (both large- and 
small-scale), and commercial agriculture. 

Some of these mercantile-maritime cities were quite small, others 
quite large, but it appears that most of them were at roughly the same level 
in the development of protocapitalist institutions, classes, and technol- 
ogy. This is not surprising since they were intimately connected to one 
another in a tight network of trade, along which ideas, techniques, goods, 
and people flowed in all directions, in constant criss-cross diffusion. 28 
(For example: Malacca, when the Portuguese first arrived, was trading 
with the Mediterranean, Inner Asia, East Africa, the Middle East, India, 
China, and probably Japan as well as all of Southeast Asia. The chronicler 
Tome Pires assures us that, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, 84 
different languages are spoken in that city, and, boosting its importance 
for the Portuguese, asserts that "whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand 
on the throat of Venice." 29 A second example from a much earlier period: 
the Tenasserim port of Kalah, in the tenth century, was trading with 
China and Arabia. According to Ibn al-Faqih, the parrots of Kalah talked 
in Persian, Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and Greek. 30 ) 

The network of mercantile-maritime centers stretched, like a string 
of pearls, from the Baltic to the eastern Mediterranean, and from there 
southward to Sofala (or beyond — the history of East and southern Africa 
is still buried in colonial slumber) and eastward to Japan. The network 
also extended inland in all three continents, but the mercantile- 
maritime cities and oceanic routes were eventually of greater evolutionary 
importance in the rise of capitalism than were the inland centers. This 
was true for two (main) reasons. 

First, foreign trade was the most peripheral of protocapitalist 
activities; it was literally beyond the reach of the law. (Inland cities that 
bordered on deserts would also have had this peripheral quality to some 
extent.) Thus, a protocapitalist port city could move products to and from 
any other oceanic port without having to pass through state-organized 


territories, and thereby avoid paying tolls, being forced to buy and sell 
goods to foreign merchants at intermediate trading centers, or perhaps 
even being denied permission to enter a state. It is worth noting, in this 
regard, that a substantial part of the high cost of Asian spices in European 
markets before 1492 resulted from the fact that shipments coming from 
India via overland routes ordinarily had to be passed from merchant to 
merchant at several trading points enroute, with profit taken at each 
intermediate market. The cheapness of Asian spices carried by the 
Portuguese in the sixteenth century therefore reflected, to a considerable 
extent, the fact that the spices could be on-loaded at an Asian port, and 
then transported direct to a European port with no intermediate 
transactions; perhaps this factor was more important than the generally 
lower cost of sea transport over land transport (a factor that is often 
overemphasized) . 

Second, long-distance commodity movement by sea, involving as it 
did the transport of vital staples as well as luxuries, was, among 
protocapitalist activities of the late Middle Ages, perhaps the closest we 
get to industrial capitalism in the urban economy of that time. It involved 
not merely an exchange of commodities but the production of many 
commodities including ships, and incorporated sophisticated technology, 
a large work force, complex transactions, and massive capital accumula- 
tion. This matter brings us back, inescapably, to the problem of defining 

There is a widespread tendency, often encountered among Marxists 
but by no means confined to that school of thought, which argues the 
following position. Money, cash exchange, and trade have been going on 
for millennia but they do not signify capitalism or even the seeds of 
capitalism. This is so because capitalism is a matter of production, not 
exchange. "Real" capitalism requires the application of wage labor and the 
production of commodities. Exchange is merely buying and selling; it does 
not add value. For Marx, it produces wealth mainly as a result of unequal 
exchange (higher prices in one market than another, and the like), not as 
a result of labor input and the production of use-value. 

From this model come a series of highly important theses. One is the 
argument that medieval European towns were not central to the rise of 
capitalism because their main activity was trade, exchange, not 
production. Therefore the rise of capitalism must have occurred, not in 
medieval towns but in medieval agriculture. 31 But a second thesis is more 
crucial for the issues discussed here. This is the argument that starts out by 
conceding that the great medieval trading cities and trading routes of Asia 
were much more impressive in scale than those of Europe and the 
Mediterranean, but this did not make them more significant for the rise 

BEFORE 1492 

of capitalism — because it was production, not exchange (trade, com- 
merce), that was the crucial process. No matter how highly developed the 
trading routes and cities of Asia were, Europe's feudal agricultural 
production (in this argument) was closer to capitalism than either the 
rural or urban production systems of non-Europe and it is this fact — the 
nature of European rural society as contrasted with non-European rural 
society — that is crucial in explaining why capitalism arose in Europe, not 
in Asia (or Africa). The fallacy regarding rural production was discussed 
previously. But equally fallacious is the idea that Asian (and African) port 
cities, mercantile-maritime centers, were somehow purely or largely 
concerned with exchange, with "commerce." Here there are in fact three 
errors. First, production involves not merely change of form but also 
change of place. It is metaphysical to argue that there is something 
ontologically distinctive about the process of shaping nature into a 
"thing," a commodity. When a farmer produces an agricultural "thing," 
he or she must not only grow it but also transport it from field to farmstead 
and then to market, and must also transport inputs of water or fertilizer or 
labor from outside the farm. Farm production, therefore, involves both 
change of form and change of place. An automobile assembly line is a 
process of change both of form and of place. Thus, overall, spatial 
movement is part of production. It has nothing whatever to do with the 
entirely distinct process by which commodities are purchased and sold. 
Indeed, the farmer's crop can be subject to exchange right on the farm as 
well as in an off-the-farm market. Therefore, the medieval activities 
involved in moving commodities over long distances were not, 
ontologically, "exchange"; they were spatial transport. They involved huge 
labor forces, massive capital investment, major technologies — of naviga- 
tion, ship construction, banking and insurance, and more — and signifi- 
cant tonnages. They produced use-value at the destination from 
commodities that had none, or less, at the point of departure. In a word, 
what is called "medieval trade" was a complex process in which 
production and manufacture played as great a role as did exchange. 

The second error is the idea, very widely held today among 
historians, that the cities, the commodity movement, and the rest of the 
complex, was somehow a trivial process involving only the moving of a 
few luxury items to a tiny ruling class. In fact, most of the medieval 
seaborne trade was a matter of staple commodities, things like crude 
textiles, iron implements, rice, wheat, lumber, ships (which often were 
sailed from the place of construction to some other port where they were 
sold), and the like. But beyond that, the tonnage and value of products 
that would not be considered staples, things like pepper, sugar, finer 
textiles, pottery, and so. forth, was, in and of itself, immensely important, 


because the market for such products was very large: the medieval elites 
were by no means insignificant. 

The third error is a failure to perceive how important industrial 
production was in these medieval cities and their hinterlands. Thus, I 
conclude that the medieval mercantile-maritime system was very much a 
nursery bed of capitalism, in Asia and Africa as well as Europe. 

The protocapitalist port cities of Europe were not more highly 
developed than those of Africa and Asia in the fifteenth century. This 
holds true regardless of the kinds of criteria chosen as measures. European 
cities, first, were not larger in absolute or relative population. In fact, 
urbanization in Europe was probably less advanced than urbanization in 
China, India, the Arab region, and no doubt many other non-European 
areas. The urban population in early Ming China was perhaps 10% of the 
total population. 32 In the Vijayanagar Empire of southern India it must 
have been at least as high: the inland capital alone held about 3% of the 
population — comparable centers in Europe, such as Paris, may have had 
half that percentage — and the coastal port cities were both numerous and 
large. 33 Second, the development of the techniques of business was fully 
as advanced, fully as complex, and fully as wideflung in space among the 
merchants and bankers of Asia and Africa as among those of Europe. 
(Tome Pires said of Gujarati businessmen in 1515: "They are men who 
understand merchandise; they are . . . properly steeped in the sound and 
harmony of it" and "those of our people who want to be clerks and factors 
ought to go there and learn, because the business of trade is a science." 34 ) 
Third, the technical and material means of production seem to have been 
at about the same level of development in many mercantile-maritime 
centers of all three continents, allowing for differences in the volume of 
production and trade, the kinds of merchandise, and the like. Maritime 
techniques were also comparable across the hemisphere: though they 
differed from ocean to ocean, it cannot be said that ships of one ocean 
were technologically more advanced than those of the others. 35 
Manufactures in port cities and other industrial centers of Europe, Africa, 
and Asia were also roughly comparable in gross scale and level of 
development. 36 Fourth, the urban class composition of Asian and African 
centers appears to have been similar to that of European centers: in all 
regions there existed a powerful class of protocapitalists and a 
wage-earning class of workers, with or without involvement also of other 
classes such as feudal landlords, slaves, and so on. And finally, the old 
European myth, codified by Weber — that European cities were somehow 
more free than non-European cities, which were under the tight control 
of the surrounding polity — is essentially an inheritance from classical 
Eurocentric diffusionism, which imagined that everything important in 

BEFORE 1492 

early Europe was imbued with freedom while everything important in 
Asia (not to mention Africa) was ground under a stultifying "Oriental 
despotism" until the Europeans arrived there and brought freedom. The 
so-called "free cities" of central Europe were hardly the norm and were 
not central to the rise of capitalism. The partial autonomy of many 
mercantile-maritime port cities of Europe, from Italy to the Baltic, was of 
course a reality, and usually reflected either the dominance by the city of 
a relatively small polity (often a city-state) or the gradual accommoda- 
tion of feudal states to their urban sectors, allowing the latter considerable 
autonomy for reasons of profit or power. But all of this held true also in 
various parts of Africa and Asia. Small city-states were common around 
the shores of the Indian Ocean, in the Maghreb, and in Southeast Asia; 
also common were quasi-independent cities, giving loose allegiance to 
larger states. This point was discussed in the previous chapter. 

The preceding discussion was not a theory of the rise of capitalism. 
My aim was simply to show that all of the theories that claim causal 
superiority for Europe on the basis of Asia and Africa's supposed lack of 
progressive urbanization or because extra-European urban processes were 
not important since urban processes in general were of minor importance 
compared to rural processes — European rural feudalism — are very 

It is not an exaggeration to describe this entire network of 
mercantile-maritime cities as a single protocapitalist system. 37 The 
surrounding space of class-organized agricultural societies was, as I argued 
previously, made up of separate societies and polities in separate regions 
but was, nonetheless, integrated enough so that persistent criss-cross 
diffusion and other movements led to a degree of unity; perhaps even a 
degree of intercontinental equilibrium. The unity was very much more 
intense for the network of protocapitalist cities. The image I have in mind 
for this is a network of strings of electric lights of various sizes and colors 
illuminating a garden party. The current, so to speak, which flowed 
among those port cities consisted of human beings (sailors, workers, 
merchants, etc.), material things (commodities, ships, fertile seeds and 
cuttings of crops, musical instruments, and much more), and ideas — 
technological ideas, innovative social, economic, and religious ideas, and 
so on. 

All of this is well known in qualitative terms but not fully so in terms 
of its intensity, its spatial extent, and, most critically, its unity. The entire 
system can be viewed as a single entity, so tightly integrated that there 
must have been rapid, almost instantaneous, criss-cross diffusion 
throughout the system of essentially every material or immaterial culture 
trait that is relevant to the economic and technical and ecological 


progress of this form of society. I believe it is an error, built into our way 
of conceptualizing cultures and cultural differences, to believe that the 
very profound differences of culture among the various societies that 
comprised this system would, somehow, have been reflected in a lack of 
integration across cultural boundaries in matters concerning the 
technical-economic-ecological dimension of culture. (Recall our discus- 
sion above concerning the distinction between evolutionary and 
nonevolutionary or partly non-evolutionary aspects of culture, in the 
theoretical tradition of anthropologists like Steward. 38 ) In those times, 
differences of language did not seem to interfere with the quest for profit 
among merchants and other participants in this system. (Recall the 
Greek-speaking parrots of Kalah, the 84 languages spoken in Malacca.) 
Nor were differences of religion any great impediment (as has been amply 
documented for Muslim-Christian-Jewish trade in the medieval Mediter- 
ranean 39 ). Certainly there were limited social networks, membership in 
which was a matter of religion or nationality or even kinship. 
Abu-Lughod has shown that the pattern of connections and distinctions 
produced a set of eight overlapping social regions — she writes of "The 
Eight Circuits of the Thirteenth-Century World System" — although her 
data and argument are consistent with my present thesis that all regions 
were in fact subregions of one protocapitalist system. 40 State boundaries 
do not seem to have played an important inhibiting role in the flows 
across the system, except in certain fairly limited periods when either 
political conflict or specific imperial policies and practices did, indeed, 
disrupt trade through one or another political partition; the truly 
nationalistic forms of capitalist enterprise become important much later; 
in fact, after 1492.41 

The network, or system, seems to have evolved over a period of 
several centuries, mainly from the tenth to the fifteenth. Without 
attributing cause, I would emphasize the fact that the period during which 
this system grew most rapidly in scale and intensity was the period during 
which the technology of oceangoing shipping increased explosively, in 
what may be thought of as a (or the) Spatial Revolution. In the 
Agricultural Revolution, we do not know whether the technical- 
ecological transformation was cause, or effect, or both, in relation to 
social transformation, although most scholars tend to treat agriculture as 
cause and social change as effect, rightly or wrongly. In the case of the 
medieval Spatial Revolution, it is most likely that the technological- 
ecological aspect was more a reflection of the economic and social 
processes associated with emergent protocapitalism and urban devel- 
opment than a cause of the latter. Nevertheless, the medieval Spatial 
Revolution was in one critical way a sequel to the Agricultural 

BEFORE 1492 

Revolution: it intensified spatial flows much as the earlier revolution 
intensified in situ production. This is not to say that earlier boat 
technology and earlier long'distance sailing out of sight of land was 
insignificant: the question is one of intensity. 

Perhaps, as a final speculation, we might think of the Spatial 
Revolution as part of a larger process which was responding to the 
maturation and decline of the feudal mode of production. Certainly it is 
true that increasing commodity demand by elites was a major stimulus, 
but it is also possible that the emerging crisis of feudalism — the decreasing 
rate at which an absolute increase in surplus could be extracted from 
peasant producers, and the resulting stresses and strains — had much to do 
with the rise of the intercontinental protocapitalist system. In any case, 
the dramatic long-distance voyages of discovery of the later Middle Ages, 
voyages by Chinese, Indians, Polynesians, Europeans, and others, should 
be conceptualized as moments in a genuine Spatial Revolution. 

Much of this is speculation beyond the empirical data. But we have 
important data about the parallels of development from one urban system 
to another, and from one trading region to another. We also have 
dramatic cases of almost instantaneous diffusion: for instance, the 
appearance of the cannon in the Mediterranean region and in China 
almost simultaneously; perhaps in the same decade. 42 For the argument of 
this book, the one crucial generalization is the following: It is not 
surprising that the processes that I have called protocapitalist were going 
on across the Eastern Hemisphere in the later Middle Ages. Africa, Asia, 
and Europe were about equally close to — or distant from — capitalism and 
modernity in 1492. After 1492, the pace of development quickened for 
Europe and slowed for Africa and Asia, because of the wealth brought to 
Europe from America. 


1. Concerning my use of the term "cultural evolution," see Chapter 1, note 14. 

2. The discussion in this section of the chapter mainly deals with the Eastern 
Hemisphere. The Western Hemisphere will be discussed separately in Chapter 4. 

3. See Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1947). 

4. Amin, Unequal Development (1976) and "Modes of Production: History and 
Unequal Development" (1985). 

5. Kabaker, "A Radiocarbon Chronology Relevant to the Origins of 
Agriculture" (1977); Megaw, Hunters, Gatherers and First Farmers Beyond Europe 
(1977); Vishnu-Mittre, "Origin and History of Agriculture in the Indian Subconti- 
nent" (1978). See the review in Blaut, "Diffusionism: A Uniformitarian Critique." 


6. Blaut, "Diffusionism" (1987a). 

7. The assumption here is that agriculture itself was evolving because it was 
useful, but there is the corollary assumption that humanity realized this not just in one 
favored place but in many places and among many peoples. This should not be 
surprising, given the fact that agriculture is useful nearly everywhere today. But it is 
definitely contradictory to the assumptions of Eurocentric diffusionism. 

8. Examples of this process include the eastward movement of the medieval 
agricultural frontier in the forests of eastern Europe and the reclaiming of swampland 
in Iraq. Cropland was being expanded in these and other ways in many regions. In 
addition, it seems certain that some societies that had not previously practiced 
agriculture were being pushed into smaller or less favorable regions and therefore were 
turning to agriculture as a means of increasing food production to meet the land 

9. See R. Lee, "Art, Science, or Politics? The Crisis in Hunter-Gatherer 
Studies'* (1992). 

10. Water-control systems in farming, including irrigation, drainage, broad- 
based terracing, raised- or drained-field construction, and natural-levee adaptations 
are probably as old as agriculture itself, because ( 1 ) all farmers everywhere know the 
problem of moisture control (adding moisture when there is deficit; removing 
moisture when there is a surplus and a danger of root drowning); (2) all of these 
procedures are initially small-scale actions taken on an individual farm (recall our 
discussion in Chapter 2 of the fallacies of the "hydraulic theory"); and (3) there is 
direct archaeological evidence of very ancient (9,000-year-old) drainage systems in 
New Guinea (Golson, "No room at the top: Agricultural intensification in the New 
Guinea Highlands," 1977), and drained- or raised-field systems in tropical America 
(Denevan, "Hydraulic Agriculture in the American Tropics: Forms, Measures, and 
Recent Research," 1982). Thus we can infer the primitivity of irrigation and these 
other water-management systems: probably they are as old as the Neolithic, along 
with drainage and raised-field systems. All this shows that intensive technology had 
already diffused insofar as it was going to do so, and nonadoption reflected something 
other than lack of information. As we noted in Chapter 2, irrigation systems diffuse as 
a social process, associated with class society. Concerning the myth that the plow was 
not used in Africa, see Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa (1973) and 
Onimode, Imperialism and Underdevelopment in Nigeria (1982). Note that plows are 
used in tropical agriculture very sparingly — mainly for some operations in rice 

1 1 . In classless societies, I speculate that the bundle of choices concerning crops, 
tools, field systems, labor input, and the like, led to roughly a common level of output 
per person, unaffected by differences in environmental quality over a great range of 
environments. In some areas very extensive systems like shifting cultivation would be 
used; in others, intensive systems, like wet-rice cultivation, would be used. But the 
productivity of labor in terms of product per hour input would tend to be about the 
same in this model for both intensive and extensive systems. This would hold true if 
two assumptions are accepted: (1) that rapid and thorough diffusion had taken place, 
and (2) that population was controlled by farming peoples so as to optimize the 
situation concerning output and leisure time. None of this would be true in a class 
society, where the constraints on technology and labor use are influenced profoundly 
by the demands and power of the ruling class. 

12. See, for example, Kea, Settlements, Trade, and Polities in the Seventeenth- 

BEFORE 1492 

Century Gold Coast (1982); Isichei, A History of Nigeria (1983); Rodney, A History 
of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800 (1970); A. Smith, "The Early States of the 
Central Sudan" (1971); Usman, The Transformation ofKatsina (1400-1883) (1981). 

13. See Blaut, "Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism" (1989). It is also true 
that in all these societies there were parallel high-status groups, clergy, bureaucrats, 
military people, and so on, but there seems not to have been any case of a large, clearly 
feudal society — I exclude a few cases of small urbanized power centers in dry, pastoral 
regions, and a few large cities — in which wealth and status was clearly divorced from 
land ownership and from the surplus extracted from peasants. 

14- Apparently such private (saleable) ownership of agricultural land was found 
mainly near important urban areas, ports, mining areas, etc. See Rawski, Agricultural 
Change and the Peasant Economy of South China (1972); Das Gupta, Malabar in Asian 
Trade: 1740 — 1800 (1967); Nicholas, "Town and Countryside: Social and Economic 
Tensions in 14th Century Flanders" (1967-1968); Kea, Settlements, Trade, andPolities 
in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast (1982); Rodney, A History of the Upper Guinea 
Coast (1970); Usman, The Transformation of Katsina (1981); Sherif, Slaves, Spices and 
Ivory in Zanzibar (1987). 

15. On the importance of hereditary fiefs and landed property in Asia, see, for 
example, Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1973); Sharma, Indian Feudalism, c. 
300-1200 (1965); Fei Hsiao-tung, China's Gentry (1953); Fu and Li, The Sprouts of 
Capitalistic Factors Within China's Feudal Society (1956); Rawski, Agricultural Change 
and the Peasant Economy of South China (1972); Tung, An Outline History of China 
(1979); Liceria, "Emergence of Brahmanas as Landed Intermediaries in Karnataka, c. 
a.d. 1000-1300 (1974); Mahalingam, Economic Life in the Vijayanagar Empire (1951); 
Hasan, "The Position of the Zamindars in the Mughal Empire (1969); Raychaudhuri, 
"The Agrarian System of Mughal India" (1965); Yadava, "Secular Land Grants of the 
Post-Gupta Period and Some Aspects of the Growth of the Feudal Complex in 
Northern India" 1966). For Africa south of the Sahara (for which there is as yet only 
fragmentary evidence), see, for example, A. Smith, "The Early States of the Central 
Sudan" (1971); Mabogunji, "The Land and Peoples of West Africa" (1971); Kea, 
Settlements, Trade, and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast (1982); Isichei, A 
History of Nigeria (1983); Onimode, Imperialism and Underdevelopment in Nigeria 
(1982); FRELIMO, Historic de Mozambique (1971); Rodney, A History of the Upper 
Guinea Coast (1970); and Usman, The Transformation ofKatsina (1981). 

16. On the manorial system of China, see Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past 
(1973). For India, see Gopal, "Quasi-Manorial Rights in Ancient India" (1963); 
Mahalingam, Economic Life in the Vijayanagar Empire (1951); Yadava, "Secular Land 
Grants of the Post-Gupta Period" (1966); Yadava, "Immobility and Subjugation of 
Indian Peasantry in Early Medieval Complex" (1974). Indian historians recognize 
important differences between the Indian and European forms of the manor, however. 
In early Indian feudalism manorial labor had some of the characteristics of serfs, some 
of wage laborers, and some of tenant farmers. Early Indian feudal estates also seem to 
have been less autarkic and insulated than the stereotypic European manor. 

17. Marx's view is set forth in "The British rule in India" (1979). Irfan Habib, 
in part following Kosambi (both are Marxists), writes of "the creation of the traditional 
Indian village, closed and self-sufficient" (my emphasis) between 200 B.C. and 650 a.d., 
in a process involving "ruralization of crafts" and somewhat planned settlement 
of landless people in villages: Habib, in "The Social Distribution of Landed Property 
in Pre-British India" (1965). 


18. On the unity of agriculture and handicraft industry in medieval European 
villages, see, for example, Sylvia Thrupp, "Medieval Industry 1000-1500" (1972). 

19. Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1947). 

20. Serfdom was not characteristic of all parts of medieval Europe. On unfree 
labor in Asia and Africa, see, for example, Yadava, "Immobility and Subjugation of 
Indian Peasantry in Early Medieval Complex" (1974); Levitzion, "The Early States of 
the Western Sudan to 1500" (1972); Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1973). 

21. See Brenner and critics in Aston and Philpin, The Brenner Debate: Agrarian 
Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-lndustrial Europe(1988); Brenner, 
"The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism." 
(1977); Baechler, "The Origins of Modernity: Caste and Feudality (India, Europe and 
Japan)." (1988). See comments on Brenner and Baechler in Chapter 2 above. 

22. including Lynn White, Jr. in Medieval Technology and Social Change (1968); 
Michael Mann, "European Development: Approaching a Historical Explanation" 
(1988); Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolute State (1974). 

23. Blaut, The National Question (1987b), chap. 7. 

24. For India, see, for example, A. Chicherov, "On the Multiplicity of 
Socio-Economic Structures in India in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century" 
(1976); I. Habib, "Problems of Marxist Historical Analysis" (1969); S. Gopal, 
Nobility and the Mercantile Community in India" (1972); Radhakamal Mukherjee, 
The Economic History of India, 1600-1800 (1967); Ramkrishna Mukherjee, The Rise 
and Fall of the East India Company (1958); Jha, Studies in the Development of Capitalism 
in India (1963); Nurul Hasan, "The Silver Currency Output of the Mughal Empire 
and Prices in India During the 16th and 17th Centuries" (1969); Yadava, "Immobility 
and Subjugation of Indian Peasantry in Early Medieval Complex" (1974). For West 
Africa, see Kea, Settlements, Trade, and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast 
(1982). For China, see Harrison, The Communists and Chinese Peasant Rebellions 
(1969); Parsons, Peasant Rebellions in the Late Ming Dynasty (1970); Fu and Li, The 
Sprouts of Capitalistic Factors Within China's Feudal Society (1956). 

25. Appadorai, Economic Conditions in Southern India (1936); Elvin, The Pattern 
of the Chinese Past (1974); Nicholas, "Town and Countryside: Social and Economic 
Tensions in 14th Century Flanders" (1967-1968), pp. 458-485; Rawski, Agricultural 
Change and the Peasant Economy of South China (1972); T. Raychaudhuri, ]an 
Company in Coromandel (1962). 

26. Rawski, Agricultural Change and the Peasant Economy of South China (1972). 

27. See Appadorai, Economic Conditions in Southern India (1936); Gernet, Daily 
Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion (1962); Habib, "Problems of Marxist 
Historical Analysis" (1969); Mahalingam, Economic Life in the Vijayanagar Empire 
(1951); K. Nilikanta Sastri, A History of South India (1966); Tung, An Outline History 
of China (1979); Kea, Settlements, Trade, and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold 
Coast (1982), Sherif, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar (1987). 

28. Blaut, "Where Was Capitalism Born?" (1976). 

29. Pires, The Suma Oriental (1944 edition). 

30. Pires, The Suma Oriental (1944); Di Meglio, "Arab Trade with Indonesia 
and the Malay Peninsula from the 8th to the 16th Century" (1970). The location of 
Kalah is tentatively placed in the Mergui region: see Wheatley, The Golden Khersonese 

BEFORE 1492 

31. This thesis is central to the famous debate over the role of urbanization in 
the medieval rise of capitalism; in Marxist literature this view is associated with 
Maurice Dobb (who in fact presented it very cautiously), and its opposition — 
emphasis on the role of towns in the rise of capitalism — is associated with Paul 
Sweezy. See Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1947), Sweezy, "A 
Critique" (1976). The thesis is also central to the debates over "dependency theory." 
For instance, Robert Brenner argues that towns and trade were essentially irrelevant 
precisely because the issue is production, not exchange, and Brenner believes 
(wrongly) that towns were not really important points of production in the medieval 
world. See Brenner, "The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism" (1985), pp. 38-39. 
Also see Chapter 2, note 172, above. 

32. Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1973). 

33. Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1973); Mahalingam, Economic Life in 
the Vijayanagar Empire (1951); Naqvi, Urban Centres in Upper India, 1556-1803 
(1968); Satish Chandra, "Commerce and Industry in the Medieval Period" (1964). 

34. Pires, The Suma Oriental (1944). Also see K. N. Chaudhuri, Trade and 
Civilization in the Indian Ocean (1985); Chan-Cheung, "The Smuggling Trade 
Between China and Southeast Asia During the Ming Dynasty (1967); Di Meglio, 
"Arab Trade with Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula from the 8th to the 16th 
Century" (1970); Elvin, "China as a Counterfactual" (1988); Gupta, Industrial 
Structure of India During Medieval Period (1970); I. Habib, "Usury in Medieval India" 
(1964); Jha, Studies in the Development of Capitalism in India (1963); Pires, The Suma 
Oriental (1944); Prakash, "Organization of Industrial Production in Urban Centres in 
India During the Seventeenth Century with Special Reference to Textiles" (1964); 
Victor Purcell, The Chinese in Southeast Asia, 2nd ed. (1965); Jan Qaisar, "The Role 
of Brokers in Medieval India" (1974); Simkin, The Traditional Trade of Asia (1968); 
Toyoda, History of Pre-Meiji Commerce in Japan (1969); Udovitch, "Commercial 
Techniques in Early Medieval Islamic Trade" (1974). 

35. Needham and collaborators, Science and Civilization in China (1954-1984), 
vol. 4, part 3; Lewis, "Maritime Skills in the Indian Ocean, 1368-1500" (1973); Lo, 
"China as a Sea Power" (1955); Ma Huan, The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores 
(1970); Purcell, The Chinese in Southeast Asia, 2nd ed. ( 1965). 

36. S. Chaudhuri, "Textile Trade and Industry in Bengal Suba, 1650-1720" 
(1974); Elvin, "China as a Counterfactual" (1988); Gernet, Daily Life in China on the 
Eve of the Mongol Invasion (1962); Jha, Studies in the Development of Capitalism in India 
(1963); Naqvi, Urban Centres in Upper India, 1556-1803 (1968); Needham and 
collaborators, Science and Civilization in China (1965-1984); Jan Qaisar, "The Role of 
Brokers in Medieval India" (1974); Rodinson, "Le Marchand Musulman" (1974); 
Rodinson, Islam and Capitalism (1973); Bodo Wiethoff, Die C/imesiscne Seeverbotspoli' 
tik und der Private Uberseehandel von 1368 bis 1567 (1963); Yang, "Government 
Control of Urban Merchants in Traditional China" (1970). 

37. 1 proposed this idea in Blaut, "Where Was Capitalism Born?" (1976). Janet 
Abu-Lughod's important book Be/ore European Hegemony: The World System a.d. 
1250-1350 (1989) is the first effort to show in precise detail how this system worked 
in the fourteenth century. Also see S. Chaudhuri, "Textile Trade and Industry in 
Bengal Suba" (1985); Simkin, The Traditional Trade of Asia (1968); Amin, 
Accumulation on a World Scale (1974) and Unequal Development (1976). 

38. Steward, Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution 
(1955). See note 1. 


39. Braudel, The Mediterranean (1972); Goitein, A Mediterranean Society (1967); 
Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic (1973). 

40. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System a.d. 1250-1350 
(1989), fig. 1, p. 34. One of the eight regions is the nonmaritime circuit extending 
from China through Central Asia to the Black Sea. 

41. Blaut, The National Question (1987b). 

42. Needham and collaborators, Science and Civilization in China (1965-1984), 
Vol. 5, part 7; Needham, Gunpowder as the Fourth Power, East and West (1985). 


After 1492 


In 1492, as have seen, capitalism was slowly emerging 
in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. In that 
year there would have been no reason whatever to 
predict that capitalism would triumph in Europe, 
and would triumph only two centuries later. 

By "the triumph of capitalism" I mean, in the present context, the 
political revolution that transferred power from the old feudal landlord 
elite to the bourgeoisie (the burghers, the capital-accumulating new 
elite): the bourgeois revolution. This was really a revolutionary epoch, 
not a single brief event, but I will follow convention by dating it to 1688, 
the year of England's "Glorious Revolution." In that year (minor 
qualifications aside) the bourgeoisie definitively took power in England. 
This class already held power in Holland and in some small states of 
southern Europe, while in some other parts of Europe (like France) the 
bourgeoisie was vigorously "rising" in certain regions although the 
conflict with feudal polities had not yet been won at the level of state 
power. It should be emphasized that the capitalism that triumphed was 
not industrial capitalism. How this preindustrial capitalism should be 
conceptualized is a difficult question because it is something much larger 
than the "simple commodity production" and "merchant capital" of 
earlier times. But the Industrial Revolution did not really begin until a 
century later, in the late eighteenth century, and those who conceptualize 
the Industrial Revolution as simply a continuation of the bourgeois 
revolution are neglecting a large and important block of history, both 
inside and outside of Europe. 

The explanation for the rise of capitalism to political power in 
Europe in the (symbolic) year 1688 requires an understanding of (1) the 
reasons Europeans, not Africans and Asians, reached and conquered 
America, and thus garnered the first fruits of colonialism; (2) the reasons 
the conquest was successful; (3) the direct and indirect effects of the 
sixteenth-century plunder of American resources and exploitation of 



American workers on the transformation of Europe; and (4) the direct 
and indirect effects of seventeenth-century colonial and semicolonial 
European enterprise in America, Africa, and Asia on the further 
transformation of Europe and eventually the political triumph of 
capitalism in the bourgeois revolution. 

In the following paragraphs we will summarize each of these processes 
in turn, and thus, so to speak, "explain 1492." Then we will turn to the 
problem of explaining the rise of capitalism to political power in Europe — 
or more properly, part of Europe — in the period 1492—1688, in the sense of 
trying to sort out the significance of colonialism and the extra-European 
world in this epochal transformation. Finally, we will look at the signifi- 
cance of colonialism, and the role of non-Europe, in the initial stages of 
the Industrial Revolution, roughly, in the period of the late eighteenth and 
early nineteenth centuries, and will look at the complementary process: 
the beginnings of underdevelopment in Africa and Asia. 

This inquiry should lead to an explanation for the fundamental fact 
that capitalism became centrated in Europe. I use the verb "centrate" to 
emphasize one crucial theoretical argument of this book: the rise of a 
more-or-less capitalist system had been going on in many parts of the world 
prior to 1492; after 1492, new forces entered which slowed, then stopped, 
its evolution outside of Europe and quickened it inside. Thus the rise of 
capitalism after 1492 was as much a matter of shifting its main headquar- 
ters to Europe as it was a matter of "rising" in a simple evolutionary sense. 

Why America Was Conquered by Europeans 
and Not by Africans or Asians 

One of the core myths of Eurocentric diffusionism concerns the discovery 
(so-called) of America. 1 Typically it goes something like this: Europeans, 
being more progressive, venturesome, achievement-oriented, and modern 
than Africans and Asians in the late Middle Ages, and with superior 
technology as well as a more advanced economy, went forth to explore 
and conquer the world. And so they set sail down the African coast in the 
middle of the fifteenth century and out across the Atlantic to America in 
1492. This myth is crucial for diffusionist ideology for two reasons: it 
explains the modern expansion of Europe in terms of internal, immanent 
forces, and it permits one to acknowledge that the conquest and its 
aftermath (Mexican mines, West Indian plantations, North American 
settler colonies, and the rest) had profound significance for European 
history without at the same time requiring one to give any credit in that 
process to non-Europeans. 

AFTER 1492 

In reality, the Europeans were doing what everyone else was doing 
across the hemisphere-wide network of protocapitalist, mercantile- 
maritime centers, and Europeans had no special qualities or advantages, 
no peculiar venturesomeness, no peculiarly advanced maritime technol- 
ogy, and so on. What they did have was opportunity: a matter of 
locational advantage in the broad sense of accessibility. The point 
deserves to be put very strongly. If the Western Hemisphere had been 
more accessible, say, to South Indian centers than to European centers, 
then very likely India would have become the home of capitalism, the site 
of the bourgeois revolution, and the ruler of the world. 

In the late Middle Ages long-distance oceanic voyaging was being 
undertaken by mercantile— maritime communities everywhere. In the 
fifteenth century Africans were sailing to Southeast Asia, Indians to 
Africa, Arabs to China, Chinese to Africa, and so on. 2 Much of this 
voyaging was across open ocean and much of it involved exploration. 
Two non-European examples are well known: Cheng Ho's voyages to 
India and Africa between 1417 and 1433, and an Indian voyage around 
the Cape of Good Hope and apparently some 2,000 miles westward into 
the Atlantic circa 1420. 3 In this period the radii of travel were becoming 
longer, as a function of the general evolution of protocapitalism, the 
expansion of trade, and the development of maritime technology. 
Maritime technology differed from region to region but no one region 
could be considered to have superiority in any sense implying 
evolutionary advantage, and novel ideas and techniques were being 
spread in all directions by rapid criss-cross diffusion. The entire 
hemisphere was participating and sharing in a Spatial Revolution. 

Certainly the growth of Europe's commercial economy led to the 
Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery. But the essence of the 
process was a matter of catching up with Asian and African protocapital- 
ist communities by European communities, which were at the margin of 
the hemisphere-wide system and were emerging from a period of 
downturn relative to some other parts of the system. Iberian Christian 
states were in conflict with Maghreb states and European merchant 
communities were having commercial difficulties both there and in the 
eastern Mediterranean. The opening of a sea route to West African gold 
mining regions, along a sailing route known since antiquity, and using 
maritime technology known to non-Europeans as well as Europeans, was 
an obvious strategy. 4 By the late fifteenth century the radii of travel had 
lengthened so that a sea route to India was found to be feasible (with 
piloting help from African and Indian sailors). The leap across the 
Atlantic in 1492 was certainly one of the great adventures of human 
history, but it has be seen in a context of shared technological and 


geographical knowledge, high potential for commercial success, and other 
factors that place it, in a hemispheric perspective, as something that could 
have been undertaken by non-Europeans just as easily as by Europeans. 

Europeans had one advantage. America was vastly more accessible 
from Iberian ports than from any extra-European mercantile-maritime 
centers that had the capacity for long-distance sea voyages. Accessibility 
was in part a matter of sailing distance. Sofala, which is presumed to have 
been the southernmost major seaport in East Africa in that period (there 
may have been others farther south), is roughly 3,000 miles farther away 
from an American landfall than are the Canary Islands (Columbus's 
jumping-off point) and 5,000 miles farther from any densely populated 
coast with possibilities for trade or plunder. The distance from China to 
America's northwest coast was even greater, and greater still to the rich 
societies of Mexico. 

To all of this we must add the sailing conditions on these various 
routes. Sailing from the Indian Ocean into the Atlantic one sails against 
prevailing winds. The North Pacific is somewhat stormy and winds are 
not reliable. From the Canaries to the West Indies, on the other hand, 
there blow the trade winds, and the return voyage is made northward into 
the westerlies. Obviously an explorer does not have this information at 
hand at the time of the voyage into unknown seas. The extent of the 
geographical knowledge possessed by Atlantic fishing communities in the 
fifteenth century remains, however, an unanswered and intriguing 
question, and there is speculation that these people fished around 
Newfoundland and the Grand Banks before 1492. More concretely, the 
Iberian sailors going to and from the Canaries, Madeira, and the Azores 
made use of the same basic wind circulation as did Columbus in crossing 
the entire ocean; Columbus knew that the trade winds (or easterlies) 
would assist him outbound and had good reason to believe that the 
westerlies would assist the return voyage. The point here is a matter of 
strong probabilities. Overall, it is vastly more probable that an Iberian 
ship would effect a passage (round trip) to America than would an 
African or Asian ship in the late fifteenth century, and, even if such a 
voyage were made by the latter, it is vastly more probable that Columbus's 
landfall in the West Indies would initiate historical consequences than 
would have been the case for an African ship reaching Brazil or a Chinese 
ship reaching California. 

Is this environmental determinism? There is no more environmen- 
talism here than there is in, say, some statement about the effect of 
oilfields on societies of the Middle East. I am asserting only the 
environmental conditions that support and hinder long-distance oceanic 
travel. In any case, if the choice were between an environmentalistic 

AFTER 1492 

explanation and one that claimed superiority of one group over all others, 
as Eurocentric diffusionism does, we would certainly settle for environ- 

Before we leave this topic, two important questions remain to be 
asked. First, why did not West Africans "discover" America since they 
were even closer to it than the Iberians were? The answer seems to be that 
mercantile, protocapitalist centers in West and Central Africa were not 
oriented to commerce by sea (as were those of East Africa). The great 
long-distance trade routes led across the Sudan to the Nile and the Middle 
East, across the Sahara to the Maghreb and the Mediterranean, and so 
forth. Sea trade existed all along the western coast, but it was not large in 
scale, given that civilizations were mainly inland and trading partners lay 
northward and eastward. Second, why did the trading cities of the 
Maghreb fail to reach America? This region (as Ibn Khaldun noted not 
long before) was in a political and commercial slump. In 1492 it was under 
pressure from the Iberians and the Turks. Just at that historical conjunc- 
ture, this region lacked a capacity for major long-distance oceanic expedi- 
tions. Also, these cities, which traded directly with the Sudan and the gold 
regions, did not have the economic incentive that Europeans had to bypass 
the Saharan land routes in search of a new — that is, cheaper — source of 

Why the Conquest Was Successful 

America became significant in the rise of Europe, and the rise of 
capitalism, soon after the first contact in 1492. Immediately a process 
began, and explosively enlarged, involving the destruction of American 
states and civilizations, the plunder of precious metals, the exploitation of 
labor, and the occupation of American lands by Europeans. If we are to 
understand the impact of all of this on Europe (and capitalism), we have 
to understand how it occurred and why it happened so quickly — why, in 
a word, the conquest was successful. 

There is a second crucial reason we need to understand the causality 
of the conquest. A nondiffusionist history starts all causal arguments with 
the working assumption that Europeans had no innate superiority, in any 
dimension of culture, over non-Europeans, no a priori "higher potential" 
for progress. This leads first to a recognition that Europeans in 1492 had 
no special advantage over Asians and Africans, ideological, social, or 
material. But it demands that we make the same working hypothesis about 
all human communities. Why, then, did Europeans discover America 
instead of Americans discovering Europe (or Africa, or Asia)? And why, 
after the first contact, did Europeans conquer the American civilizations 


instead of being defeated and driven from America's shores? The working 
assumption of cultural uniformitarianism — or, if you prefer, the psychic 
unity of humankind — here confronts the diffusionist tendency to dismiss 
the peoples of America as primitive and irrelevant. 5 

There were several immediate reasons why American civilizations 
succumbed, but one of these is of paramount importance and probably 
constitutes a sufficient cause in and of itself. This is the massive depopula- 
tion caused by the pandemics of Eastern Hemisphere diseases that were 
introduced to America by Europeans. 6 A second factor was the considera- 
ble advantage Europeans held in military technology, but this advantage 
has to be kept in perspective. The technological gap was not so great that 
it could by itself bring military victory — after the initial battles — against 
American armies that were vastly larger and would sooner or later have 
adopted the enemy's technology. America is a vast territory, and in 1492 
it had a very large population, numbering at least 50 million people and 
conceivably as many as 200 million, a goodly proportion of these people 
living in state-organized societies with significant military capability.? 
Military technology tends, historically, to diffuse from one camp to the 
opposing camp in a relatively short time. Moreover, the superiority of the 
Spaniards' primitive guns was not really very great when compared with 
the Americans' bows and arrows. I think it is, therefore, certain that the 
tide would have turned against the Europeans had the matter been merely 
one of military capability. There would have been no conquest, or the 
conquest would have embraced only a limited territory, and certainly 
would not have swept south as far as the great civilizations of the central 
Andes. The point is that history went in a different direction because of 
the incredibly severe and incredibly rapid impact of introduced diseases. 
Resistance collapsed because the Americans were dying in epidemics even 
before the battles were joined. 8 Probably 90% of the population of central 
Mexico was wiped out during the sixteenth century; the majority of these 
deaths occurred early enough to assist the political conquest. Parallel 
processes took place in other parts of the hemisphere, especially where 
there were major concentrations of population, these in most cases being 
areas of state organization and high civilization. Perhaps three-quarters of 
the entire population of America was wiped out during that century. 9 
Millions died in battle with the Spaniards and Portuguese and in forced- 
labor centers such as the mines of Mexico and Peru, but much greater 
numbers died in epidemics, and this was the reason that resistance to the 
conquest was rapidly overcome in most areas. 

Both the susceptibility of American populations to Eastern Hemi- 
sphere diseases and the lower level of military technology among Western 
Hemisphere peoples can be explained in fairly straightforward cultural- 

AFTER 1492 

evolutionary terms, although evidence bearing on the matter is partly 
indirect. The Western Hemisphere was not occupied by humans until very 
late in the Paleolithic period; there is dispute about the first arrivals, but 
most scholars do not believe that the Americas were occupied before 
30,000 b.p. The first immigrants did not possess agriculture. The earliest 
migrations preceded the Agricultural Revolution in the Eastern Hemi- 
sphere; in addition, the source area for the migrations, northeastern 
Siberia, is generally too cold for agriculture, even for present-day agricul- 
ture, and we would not expect to find that these cultures were experiment- 
ing with incipient agriculture 20,000 years or so ago although some 
low-latitude cultures were doing so. Migrants to America were paleolithic 
hunters, gatherers, fishers, and shellfishers. They came in small numbers, 
apparently in a widely spaced series of relatively small population move- 
ments, and spread throughout both North and South America. Only after 
some millennia had passed was the stock of resources for hunting, fishing, 
gathering, and shellfishing under any significant pressure from humans. 
One assumes that population growth was slow but — this is of course 
speculative — that population growth eventually did reach the point where 
conditions were favorable to an Agricultural Revolution. 10 In the Eastern 
Hemisphere the Agricultural Revolution seems to have occurred (as a 
qualitative change) roughly 10,000-12,000 years ago. In the Western 
Hemisphere that point may have been reached about 4,000 years later. 11 
Thereafter, cultural evolution in the Western Hemisphere proceeded 
along lines somewhat parallel to those of Eastern Hemisphere evolution: 
the development of agricultural societies, of monumental ceremonial 
centers, science, writing, cities, feudal class structures, and mercantile 
trade. It seems, indeed, that the Western Hemisphere societies were 
closing the gap. But in 1492, military technology in the most advanced 
and powerful states was still well behind that of Eastern Hemisphere states. 
Metal was just coming into use in this arena, and guns had not been 
invented. Hence the superiority of Cortes's armies over Moctezuma's and 
Pizarro's over the Incas'. (When Cortes arrived at Tenochtitlan the Aztecs 
were already dying in great numbers from European diseases which, 
apparently, had been carried by American traders from Cuba to Mexico. 
Likewise, the Incas apparently were succumbing to these diseases before 
Pizarro arrived. 12 ) 

The susceptibility of American populations to Eastern Hemisphere 
diseases, and the consequent devastation of American settlements, col- 
lapse of states, and defeat and subjugation by the Europeans, is explained 
within the same general model. Small populations entered America and 
probably bore with them only a small subset of the diseases that existed in 
the Eastern Hemisphere at the time of their departure. They came, in 


addition, from a rather isolated, thinly populated part of the hemisphere, 
and a part which, having a cold climate, would have lacked some diseases 
characteristic of warm regions. Perhaps more important is the history of 
the diseases themselves. Many diseases originated or became epidemiol- 
ogically significant during or after the Agricultural Revolution, and have 
ecological connections to agriculture, to urbanization, to zoological and 
botanical changes in the ecosystems strongly modified by human land use, 
and so on. In the Eastern Hemisphere humanity entered these ecological 
situations after the initial migrations to the Western Hemisphere, hence 
these migrants to America would not have carried these diseases with 
them. Later migrants may have done so (although this is again unlikely 
because they came from a cold and isolated part of Asia, and came in small 
numbers). But we can assume that the sparse settlement, the hunting- 
gathering-fishing-shellfishing way of life, and the absence of agricultural 
settlements and urbanization in the Americas during many millennia, 
would have caused a disappearance of some of the Eastern Hemisphere 
diseases that had been carried across to the Americas by migrants. After a 
time the American populations would have lost their physiological 
immunities to diseases no longer present in these populations, and they 
would of course lack immunities to diseases never before encountered. It is 
known, in this regard, that utter devastation was produced in the Americas 
from diseases to which Eastern Hemisphere populations had such high 
levels of immunity that they experienced these diseases as minor maladies 

Hence there is no need to take seriously any longer the various myths 
that explain the defeat of the Americans in terms of imputed irrationality 
or superstitiousness or any of the other classical, often racist, myths about 
American civilizations in 1492. (The most widely known of these myths 
is the idea that Mexicans imagined that Cortes and his troops were gods, 
and fell down before them in awe instead of fighting. This did not 
happen.) The relatively minor difference in technology between the two 
communities, and the impact of Eastern Hemisphere diseases upon West- 
ern Hemisphere communities, can be explained in terms of the settlement 
history of the Western Hemisphere and its consequences. The Americans 
were not conquered: they were infected. 

Europe in 1492 

In 1492, European society was rather sluggishly moving out of feudalism 
and toward capitalism. Nothing in the landscape would suggest that a 
revolutionary transformation was imminent, or even that the social and 
economic changes taking place were very rapid. The growth of the 

AFTER 1492 

English woolen trade in the fifteenth century was not (as it is often 
depicted) a sign of revolutionary economic change: it was complemented 
by a decline in competing woolen industries in southern Europe. 13 Rural 
growth in this century reflected mainly population recovery (in some 
areas) after the great plagues of the preceding century, and the 
commercialization of agriculture that was then taking place had been 
doing so for some time. 14 Towns were growing, but only slowly, and the 
urban population was still only a small fraction of total population 
(except in Italy and the Low Countries); and the urban population of 
Europe was smaller than it was in many non-European areas. 15 There were 
strong signs even of economic contraction instead of growth. 16 The 
Italian Renaissance, in economic terms, did not raise the Italian centers 
above the level of many non-European centers, including those in nearby 
Islamic countries (for instance, Cairo), and the Renaissance was not at all 
a technological revolution. 17 All of this needs to be said by way of setting 
the stage. Before 1492 there was slow growth in Europe, perhaps even a 
downturn. Certainly — and this is accepted by the majority of European 
historians — no truly revolutionary transformation was underway in 1492. 

Within a few decades after 1492 the rate of growth and change 
speeded up dramatically, and Europe clearly entered a period of rapid 
metamorphosis. There is no dispute about this fact, which is seen in the 
known statistics relating to prices, urban growth, and much more beside. 18 
What is disputable is the causal connection between these explosive 
sixteenth-century changes and the beginnings of economic exploitation 
in America (and, significantly but secondarily, in Africa and Asia). There 
is agreement that the effect was profound. But did it truly generate a 
qualitative transformation in Europe's economy? Or did it suddenly 
quicken a process already well underway? Or did it merely modify this 
process slightly with effects such as inflation? This question cannot be 
answered unless we break out of the European historical tunnel and look 
at, what was going on in America, Asia, and Africa between 1492 and 
1688, the symbolic date for Europe's bourgeois revolution. 

OF EUROPE, 1492-1688 

Colonialism and Capitalism in the Sixteenth Century 

Enterprise in the Americas was from the start a matter of capital 
accumulation: of profit. No matter if some elements of medieval law 
were incorporated in legal and land-granting systems in (for 


Europeans) the New World, and if the Iberian governments took a 
substantial, though usually overestimated, portion of the profits. The 
goal of all European individuals and groups involved in the enterprise, 
clergy apart, was to make money, for oneself or one's country (usually 
the former). 

The leading group, almost everywhere, was the European 
protocapitalist class, not only merchants but also industrialists and 
profit-oriented landlords — not only Iberian but also Italian, Flemish, 
Dutch, German, English, and so on. This class community took its 
profit from American enterprise and invested part of it in Europe, 
buying land and developing commercial agriculture, developing 
industries (like shipbuilding, sugar refining, and so on) that were 
associated with the growing colonial enterprise, developing profitable 
businesses in spheres of activity which served the growing European 
economy (for instance, the burgeoning Atlantic fisheries), building 
urban structures, and the like. Part of the profit was plowed back into 
additional colonial risk enterprise, in America and in the new trading 
enterprises in southern Asia, Africa, and the Levant. One of the 
deceptively subtle aspects of the process was the immense increase in 
purchases of all sorts by European merchants in all markets, inside and 
outside of Europe, growing out of the fact that these merchants now 
had incredible amounts of precious metals or metal-based money at 
their command and could offer previously unheard-of prices. Perhaps 
half the gold and silver brought back from America in the sixteenth 
century was contraband, hence available directly for this kind of 
enterprise, but the remainder, after passing through the great customs 
houses, quickly entered circulation as the Iberian governments paid 
out gold and silver for goods and services. 19 

Colonial enterprise in the sixteenth century produced capital in 
a number of ways. One was gold and silver mining. A second was 
plantation agriculture, principally in Brazil. A third was the trade with 
Asia in spices, cloth, and the like. A fourth and by no means minor 
element was the profit returned to European investors from a variety of 
productive and commercial enterprises in the Americas, including 
profit on production for local use in Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere; 
profit on sale of goods imported from Europe; profit on a variety of 
secondary exports from America (leather, dyestuffs, etc.); profit on 
land sales in America; profit returned to Europe by families and 
corporations holding land grants in Mexico and other areas. A fifth 
was slaving. A sixth, piracy. Notice that all of this is normal capital 
accumulation; none of it is the mysterious thing called "primitive 
accumulation." 20 (Value from wage labor, not to mention forced 

AFTER 1492 

labor, was involved, and much of it was value from production, not 
simply from trade.) Accumulation from these sources was massive. It 
was massive enough so that the process cannot be dismissed as a minor 
adjunct of protocapitalist accumulation in Europe itself, and it was 
massive enough, I believe, to fuel a major transformation in Europe, 
the rise to power of the bourgeoisie and the immense efflorescence of 
preindustrial capitalism, in ways that we will discuss. 

Precious Metals 

We notice first the export of gold and silver from the Americas and its 
insertion within the circuits of an Eastern Hemispheric market economy 
in which gold and silver already provide the common measure of value, 
directly or indirectly, in almost all markets. The flow of precious metals 
began immediately after the European discovery of America, and by 1640 
at least 180 tons of gold and 17,000 tons of silver are known to have 
reached Europe. 21 (The real figures must be at least double these amounts, 
since records were poor for some areas and periods and since contraband 
was immensely important. 22 ) Additional quantities of gold came from 
colonial activities in Africa. In the period 1561 to 1580 about 85% of the 
entire world's production of silver came from the Americas. The simple 
quantity of gold and silver in circulation in the Eastern Hemisphere 
economy as a whole was profoundly affected: hemispheric silver stock 
may have been tripled and gold stock increased by 20% during the course 
of the sixteenth century as a result of bullion brought from America. 23 
The fact that much of the pre-existing stock must have been frozen in uses 
not permitting direct or indirect conversion to money suggests to me that 
American bullion may have as much as doubled the gold- and silver-based 
money supply of the Eastern Hemisphere as a whole. (In Europe, the 
circulation of metal coins increased eight- or ten-fold in the course of the 
century. 24 ) This process must be seen in perspective: it is money flowing 
constantly and in massive amounts into Europe, through Europe, and 
from Europe to Asia and Africa, constantly replenished at the entry 
points (Seville, Antwerp, Genoa, etc.) with more American supplies, and 
constantly permitting those who hold it to offer better prices for all 
goods — as well as labor and land — in all markets, than anyone else had 
ever been able to offer in prior times. 

The importance of these flows of gold and silver is routinely 
underestimated by scholars, mainly for three reasons (apart from implicit 
diffusionism, the simple tendency to undervalue causal events in 
non-Europe). First, the process is seen somehow as purely primitive 
accumulation. But the metals were mined by workers and transported by 


workers; the enterprise overall involved risk capital and all of the other 
familiar traits of the sorts of protocapitalist productive enterprises which 
were characteristic of that time (that it was partly state-controlled does 
not alter this argument, nor does the fact that some of the labor was 
unfree); and very major economic and social systems were built around 
the mines themselves in Mexico, Peru, and other parts of America. 

Second, the argument that precious metal flows significantly 
affected the European economy is dismissed by some scholars as 
"monetarism" (roughly, the theory that changes in money alone are very 
significant for changes in the economy overall). The error in this charge 
is a failure to see the sixteenth-century economy in its own, appropriate, 
geographical and social context, and to impute to the economy of that 
time the liquidity of exchange and the relative lack of spatial friction that 
characterizes the capitalist economy of our own time. Two facts here are 
basic. First of all, the possession of precious metal was highly localized in 
space. European merchants, as a community, obtained it and set it in 
motion outward, toward rural Europe and toward markets outside of 
Europe. Second of all, the supply of precious metal was essentially 
continuous, and therefore the advantage held by European protocapital- 
ists in terms of prices they could offer for commodities, labor, and land was 
persistently higher than the prices which competitors anywhere could 
offer. So the protocapitalist community very steadily undermined the 
competition in all markets across the Eastern Hemisphere, within Europe 
and without, eventually gaining control of most international seaborne 
trade in most of the mercantile— maritime centers from Sofala to Calicut 
to Malacca. 25 The penetration of these markets, the acquisition of trading 
bases, and the control of a few small but important producing areas (like 
some islands of the Moluccas), was not a matter of European rationality 
or venturesomeness, but rather reflected the availability to Europeans of 
American gold and silver, trans-shipped through Lisbon, Antwerp, 
Acapulco (in the "Manila galleons"), and so on. 

A third sort of doubt about the importance of American gold and 
silver is associated with the critique of Earl Hamilton's classic theory that 
the precious metal supply produced an imbalance between factors of 
production in the European economy, produced thereby a windfall of 
profits, and thus in effect destabilized the economy and moved it toward 
capitalism. 26 Hamilton was one of the few economic historians to 
perceive that American gold and silver was a crucial, central cause of 
change in Europe, although he was (partly) wrong about the mechanisms 
that brought about this change. The metals did not transform the 
economy in any direct sense. Rather, they enriched the protocapitalist 
class and thereby gave them the power to immensely accelerate the 

AFTER 1492 

transformation that was already underway — not only in Europe — toward 
capitalism as a political and social system, and to prevent non-European 
capitalists from sharing in the process. American bullion hastened the rise 
of capitalism and was crucial in the process by which it became centrated 
in Europe. 


The impact of the slave plantation system on Europe's economy was felt 
mainly in the seventeenth century and thereafter. But part of the general 
undervaluing of the significance of early colonialism — of the world 
outside of Europe — is a tendency not to notice that the plantation system 
was of considerable importance even in the sixteenth century. Moreover, 
the early history of the Atlantic sugar plantation economy gives a 
revealing picture of the way in which the protocapitalist colonial 
economy was eroding the feudal economy. Sugar planting was not a new 
enterprise; sugar (contrary to myth) was not a rare commodity, and sugar 
planting (also contrary to myth) was not an insignificant economic 
curiosity at the fringe of capitalist development. Commercial and feudal 
cane sugar production was found throughout the Mediterranean in the 
fifteenth century. 27 Although little is known about the way planting was 
organized, it is known that commercial sugar production was important in 
India 2,000 years ago (apparently it was a Mauryan state industry), and in 
the Middle Ages commercial sugar planting under various feudal and 
probably protocapitalist systems of organization was found in East Africa, 
part of West Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Cyprus, the Levant, various parts of 
Mediterranean Europe, and other regions. 28 If cane sugar was not an 
important commodity in northern Europe this was because of its price, as 
against that of sweeteners like honey. Europeans first moved the 
commercial plantation system out into the newly settled Atlantic islands 
from Madeira to Sao Tome" and then vastly expanded production in the 
Americas. But throughout the sixteenth century the new plantations 
merely supplanted the older Mediterranean sugar-producing regions; total 
production for the Europe-Mediterranean market did not rise until 
later. 29 This was capitalist production displacing feudal and semifeudal 
plantation production, using the twin advantages of colonialism: empty 
land and cheap labor. No other industry was as significant as the 
plantation system for the rise of capitalism before the nineteenth century. 

In 1600 Brazil exported about 30,000 tons of sugar with a gross sale 
value of £2,000,000. This is about double the total annual value of all 
exports from England to all of the world in that period. 30 It will be recalled 
that British exports in that period, principally of wool, are sometimes 


considered paradigmatic for the "awakening," indeed the "rise," of early- 
modern Europe. Also in 1600, per capita earnings from sugar in Brazil, for 
all except Indians, was about equal to per capita income in Britain later in 
that century. 31 The rate of accumulation in the Brazilian plantation 
industry was so high at the end of the sixteenth century that it was able to 
generate enough capital to finance a doubling of its capacity every two 
years. 32 Early in the seventeenth century the Dutch protocapitalist com- 
munity (which was heavily involved in the Brazilian sugar enterprise, 
mainly in the shipping and sales dimensions) calculated that profit rates in 
the industry were 56% per year, totalling nearly £1,000,000 per year. The 
rate of profit was higher still a bit earlier, at the close of the sixteenth 
century, when production costs, including the cost of purchasing slaves, 
amounted to only one-fifth of income from sugar sales. These statistics 
should be seen against the background of an industry that was not 
responding to some novel demand for some novel product in an already- 
rising Europe, but was merely (in essence) undercutting the precapitalist 
Mediterranean producers of Spain, Italy, Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere, 
in the supply of a highly important commercial product. 

Sugar is of course the centerpiece of the plantation system down to 
the late eighteenth century. But other kinds of colonial production, 
mainly but not only agricultural, and fully as close to capitalism as was 
the Brazil plantation system, were of some significance even before the 
end of the sixteenth century. There was, for instance, some direct 
production of spices in the Moluccas and some European involvement 
with Indian merchant capitalists in the organization pepper production 
in South India. Dyes, tobacco, and other commercially valuable products 
were flowing from America to Europe. A very large agricultural economy 
existed in parts of America to supply food, fiber, leather, and other 
necessities to the mining settlements and other settlements. Immediately 
after 1492 (or before?) west European fishermen and whalers developed 
an immense industry in Newfoundland and elsewhere on the North 
American coast. 

To all of this must be added the profits from other sorts of colonial 
and semicolonial activities in the Eastern Hemisphere. 33 The slave trade 
was highly profitable even in the sixteenth century. European merchant 
capitalists of all nations profited greatly from the Lisbon trade with Asia 
and East Africa in textiles and particularly spices (the Asian spices carried 
by the Portuguese and sold mainly through Antwerp did not replace the 
traditional Mediterranean flow but rather added to it, hence providing a 
novel and important source of accumulation). There was, in addition, 
considerable profit from the within-Asia trade resulting from the 
domination of long-distance oceanic trade in East Africa, India, and 

AFTER 1492 

Southeast Asia by Portugal (with participation also by Spain and later 
Holland). Broadly speaking, however, accumulation deriving from 
Western Hemisphere colonial activities far outweighed that from Eastern 
Hemisphere activities, colonial and semicolonial, in the sixteenth 
century. Overall, both the quantitative significance, in that century, of 
production and trade in colonial and semicolonial areas and the immense 
profitability of the enterprise, that is, the rapid capital accumulation 
which it fostered directly and (in Europe) indirectly, add up to a 
significant vector force, easily able to change the process of economic 
transformation in Europe from sluggish evolution to rapid revolution. 


There seem to be two particularly good ways to assess the real significance 
for the rise of capitalism of sixteenth-century colonial production in 
America, and some other areas, along with trading, piracy, and the like, 
in Asia and Africa. One way is to trace the direct and indirect effects of 
colonialism on European society, looking for movements of goods and 
capital, tracing labor flows into industries and regions stimulated or 
created by colonial enterprise, and looking at the way urbanization 
nourished in those cities that were engaged in colonial (and more 
generally extra-European) enterprise or closely connected to it, and the 
like. This processes overall would then be examined in relation to the 
totality of changes taking place in Europe in that century, to determine 
whether, in Europe itself, changes clearly resulting from the direct and 
indirect impact of extra-European activities were the prime movers for 
economic and social change. This task still remains undone. The second 
way is to attempt to arrive at a global calculation of the amount of labor 
(free and unfree) that was employed in European enterprises in America, 
Africa, and Asia, along with the amount of labor in Europe itself which 
was employed in activities derived from extra-European enterprise, and 
then to look at these quantities in relation to the total labor market in 
Europe for economic activities that can be thought of as connected to the 
rise of capitalism. This task has not been done either; indeed, as far as I 
know little research has been done on sixteenth-century labor forces and 
labor markets in American settlements or indeed in Europe. So the 
proposition which I am arguing here, concerning the significance of 
sixteenth-century colonialism (and related extra-European activities) for 
the rise of capitalism in Europe, perhaps cannot be tested as yet. 

Still, there are suggestive indications. Some of these have been 
mentioned already: matters of assessing the quantities and values of 
colonial exports to Europe. We can also speculate about labor. One 


approach is through population. The population of Spain and Portugal in 
the mid-sixteenth century may have been around nine million. 3 ^ 
Estimates of sixteenth-century populations for America vary widely and 
there is much controversy about population levels and rates of decline, 35 
but for the present, highly speculative, and essentially methodological, 
argument, I will ignore the controversies and play with global estimates. 
The population of Mexico at midcentury may have been around six 
million, a population that was undergoing continuous decline from its 
preconquest level of perhaps 30 million down to one-tenth of that figure 
(or perhaps less) in 1600. 36 Populations in the Andean regions involved 
in mineral and textile production for the Spaniards may (I am 
speculating) have totalled five million in the late sixteenth century. 
Perhaps we can add an additional two million for the population of other 
parts of Ibero- America that were within regions of European control and 
presumably involved, more or less, in the European-dominated economy. 
Let us, then, use a ball-park estimate of 13 million for the American 
population that was potentially yielding surplus value to Europeans in the 
mid-to-late sixteenth century. The population seems larger than that of 
Iberia. Granted, the comparison should be made with a larger part of 
Europe, certainly including the Low Countries, which were intimately 
involved in the exploitation of America (and Asia) at this period, along 
with parts of Italy and other countries. Assume then a figure of 20 million 
for Europe as against 13 million for America. 

I see no reason to argue that the European populations were more 
intimately involved in the rise of capitalism than the American 
populations — that is, the 13 million people who we assume were in 
European-dominated regions. It is likely that the proportion of the 
American population that was engaged in labor for Europeans, as wage 
work, as forced labor including slave labor, and as the labor of farmers 
delivering goods as tribute or rent in kind, was no lower than the 
proportion of Iberian people engaged in labor for commercialized sectors 
of the Spanish and Portuguese economy. Moreover, the level of 
exploitation for Indian labor must have been much higher than that for 
Iberian labor because portions of the Indian labor force were worked 
literally to death in this period — depopulation was due in part to forced 
labor — and so the capital generated by each American worker must have 
been higher than that generated by a European worker. (We need to 
remind ourselves again that we are dealing with a preindustrial, basically 
medieval economy in Europe. It cannot be argued, for instance, that 
technology or fixed capital in production was more advanced in the 
utilization of European than in that of American labor, so exploitation 
was in the last analysis a function of human effort.) 

AFTER 1492 

We must next take into account the fact that the capital 
accumulated from the labor of Americans went directly to the economic 
sectors in Europe that were building capitalism, whereas most workers and 
peasants in Europe were still connected to essentially medieval sectors of 
the economy. Then we must add the labor of Africans and Asians. And 
finally, we must take into account the European workers, in Europe and 
elsewhere, whose labor must be considered part of the extra-European 
economy. By this admittedly speculative reasoning, free and unfree 
workers in the colonial and semicolonial economy of the late sixteenth 
century were providing as much or more surplus value and accumulated 
capital for European protocapitalism, the rising bourgeoisie, as were the 
workers of Europe itself. 

Little is known about the American work force in the sixteenth 
century, but, again, some speculations are possible. Las Casas asserted that 
three million or more Indians had been enslaved by the Spaniards in the 
northern part of Spanish America during the first half of the sixteenth 
century, and this figure, once dismissed, is now taken seriously. 37 It is 
known that more than 400,000 were enslaved in Nicaragua alone. 38 It is 
realized also that Indian slave labor was extremely important in the 
European economy of America in that period, in Brazilian sugar planting, 
Mesoamerican and Antillean mining, and elsewhere. Let us speculate 
that 100,000 Indians were working as slaves for Spaniards in a given year 
in the mid-sixteenth century. Perhaps 20,000 Indians were working at 
free and forced labor in the mines of Mexico and the Andes in the latter 
part of the century, 39 and it is safe to assume that five times that number 
were involved in the mining economy overall. Potosf, the great Andean 
silver-mining city, had a population of 120,000 in the 1570s (larger than 
Paris, Rome, Madrid, Seville). A much greater but unknown number of 
Indians were workers on haciendas and other European enterprises, or 
provided periodic forced labor, or provided tribute and rent in kind. (The 
Cortes encomienda in Mexico included 50,000 Indians. 40 ) There may 
have been 100,000 African slaves in America and on the island of Sao 
Tome in the closing years of the century. 41 There may have been 300,000 
Europeans, Mulattos, and Mestizos in the Americas in 1570,42 of whom 
conceivably as many as 250,000 were workers. 

Perhaps it would not be unreasonable to estimate that one million 
people were working in the European economy of the Western 
Hemisphere in the closing years of the sixteenth century, perhaps half of 
them engaged in productive labor in distinctly capitalist enterprises. Can 
this have been more than the European protocapitalist work force of the 
time? All of this is somewhat speculative, but it points toward the 
conclusion that American labor was a truly massive part of the total labor 


of this we must add three additional quantities: labor involved in the slave 
trade within continental Africa; 43 labor in other extra-European regions 
(Sao Tome, Ternate, Calicut, and so on) that was incorporated into the 
European economy or produced goods for trade to Europeans; and labor of 
Europeans, inside and outside of Europe, which was part of the 
extra-European economy — sailors, soldiers, stevedores, teamsters, clerks, 
foremen, and the rest. 

By the end of the sixteenth century the rise of Europe had well 
begun. As capital flowed into Europe, and as other effects of colonial 
enterprise also flowed into the European system or region, secondary 
causation appeared, including agricultural expansion and transformation, 
primitive manufacturing, urbanization, and expansion of rural settlements 
and the commercial economy. These latter have been looked at carefully 
but in a mainly tunnel-historical framework; as a result, the rise of Europe 
in the sixteenth century has appeared to be a process taking place wholly 
within the European spatial system, and caused wholly (or mainly) by 
autochthonous forces. As we have seen, this is an inaccurate picture and 
an incomplete one. Urbanization was taking place, but mainly in areas 
connected to the extra-European economy. Inflation was also (with some 
qualifications) most severe in these areas. 44 Among the sectors of the 
European economy that were growing in the sixteenth century, some, like 
piracy and shipbuilding, were tied directly to the extra-European 
economy, while others, like wheat production and North Atlantic 
fishing, were stimulated directly and indirectly by that economy. 45 

I would generalize as follows. The initiating condition, at the 
beginning of the sixteenth century, is a west and central European 
economy that is undergoing slow but definite change toward capitalism — 
as are many regions of Asia and Africa at that same time. Novel forces 
intrude into the European system, as impinging boundary processes, 
because of the conquest of America and the other extra-European events, 
intruding processes which consist mainly of capital and material products 
(and of course the labor embedded in these things). These then intersect 
with the ongoing evolving economic, technological, demographic, and 
other changes. Many new changes appear, as a result not of direct stimulus 
from the extra-European world but from the changes already underway, 
which themselves are mainly results of those extra-European boundary 
processes. The internal European changes of course feed forward to 
produce intensification of the processes going on in America, Asia, etc., 
and these, in turn, produce still more changes within Europe. 

We can see a geographical pattern in all of this. There is a tendency 
for major economic changes to occur first near the mercantile-maritime 
centers that participate in the extra- European processes. Obviously, not 

AFTER 1492 

centers that participate in the extra-European processes. Obviously, not 
all of the centers that existed in 1492 were equal participants in that 
process, with some of the Iberian, Italian, and Flemish port cities taking 
the lead. But the network was sufficiently tight so that Hanseatic and 
English ports were early participants, as were inland cities with special 
economic characteristics, like Augsburg and Paris. From these many 
centers, the process spread into the interior of Europe, first into areas that 
supplied basic staple goods like wheat — the growth at that time of the 
Baltic wheat trade and manorial production of wheat in parts of central 
and east Europe is well known — and then elsewhere. At any given time 
we see a broad and irregular spatial pattern (of the type which geographers 
call "distance decay") of descending levels of urbanization and 
commercial production as we move across the landscape toward interior 

Other processes were underway as well, and so the pattern that I have 
mapped out here is much too simple. Population growth in some areas 
reflected sixteenth-century economic changes associated with extra- 
European events but in other areas it signified recovery from the 
fourteenth- and fifteenth-century population declines. Other changes, 
such as peasant revolts, reflected the general crisis of the late feudal 
economy, but the sixteenth-century rise of prices and (at least in some 
areas) rents was a contributing force in the unrest. As to the Reformation, 
I would argue in the Tawneyan tradition that it was broadly an effect, not 
an independent cause, of the economic changes that were taking place in 
Europe in the sixteenth century. 46 But which changes? The internal 
crumbling of feudalism? The forces impinging from the extra-European 
world? Both? Probably the spatial diffusion of the Reformation in the 
sixteenth century reflected mainly intra-European forces, 47 but by the 
time of the seventeenth-century bourgeois revolutions, the areas most 
deeply involved in extra-European activities tended to be centers also of 
Protestantism. In short: the spatial patterns of change in sixteenth- 
century Europe reflect to some extent the integration of Europe with 
America, and secondarily Africa and Asia, but the pattern is still 
somewhat unclear. 

Overall, the processes of transformation and modernization in 
sixteenth-century Europe were terribly complex, varying in time and 
place throughout most of that continent. But the generalization is 
nonetheless fairly straightforward. The extra-European component, after 
1492, led to an immense stimulation of changes in Europe, those that 
produced on the one hand an increase in the rate of European economic 
change and growth, and on the other hand the beginnings of a centration 
of capitalism in Europe (a process discussed further below). By the end of 


the sixteenth century these extra-European forces had laid the foundation 
for the political and social triumph of (preindustrial) capitalism, or rather 
for the fact that the Glorious Revolution occurred in 1688, instead of 
much later, and in England, instead of Egypt or Zimbabwe or India or 
China (or all of these at once). 

Colonialism and Capitalism in the 
Seventeenth Century 

By the middle of the seventeenth century, changes were taking place in 
Europe at a rapid rate and on a massive scale, and the problem of sort- 
ing out the internal and external causes and effects for this period is a 
very complex matter. In this same period there occurred a massive 
expansion, in location and intensity, of formal and informal colon- 
ialism in the Americas and around the coasts of Africa and Asia, and for 
these extra-European processes the problem of complexity is compounded 
by a lack of quantitative data regarding volume of production, numbers 
in the labor forces, capital accumulation, and other information that 
would help us to judge the role of colonialism (as a broad concept) in 
the changes that were taking place within Europe. These matters are far 
too complex to permit us to discuss them satisfactorily here. I will limit 
myself to a rather sketchy intervention or (if you prefer to call it that) 
a model. 

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Netherlands and 
England had emerged as the centers (or center) of capitalist development 
in Europe. 48 Although Spain continued to feed huge quantities of silver 
and some gold into Europe in the first half of this century, and Portuguese 
plantations in Brazil and trading activities in Asia continued to be 
important fountains of accumulation, the main expansion of colonial 
enterprise after 1600 was Dutch and English. The crucial component was 
the West Indian plantation system, which expanded explosively after 
about 1640. (Fifty thousand slaves were imported into Barbados alone in 
the following 50 years. Probably two million slaves were imported into 
America in the course of the seventeenth century.) 49 If we place the Dutch 
and British sugar colonies in the same economic space as the metropolitan 
countries themselves, it seems likely that the sugar plantation economy 
was the single largest productive sector in this expanded European 
economy (or "Atlantic economy," as it is often called) aside from family 
farming, and by far the largest single generator of value. (Brazilian 
plantations, producing partly for Dutch capital, were still, in the mid- 
seventeenth century, more massive than the West Indian.) But British and 
Dutch enterprise in the Eastern Hemisphere was also expanding very 

AFTER 1492 

rapidly; the East India companies were formed around 1600, and by 1650 
the Dutch and British together controlled most of the intercontinental 
trade — unequal trade, and in a sense semicolonial trade — with Asia, as 
well as the slave trade in Africa. Meanwhile, Spanish enterprise was 
yielding substantial accumulation in America (whether or not there was a 
"seventeenth-century depression"). And we must not ignore the great 
variety of additional extra-European sources of accumulation: a now 
massive fishing industry in the northwestern Atlantic, resource extraction 
and the beginnings of European settlement in North America, the slave 
trade, piracy, Russian enterprise in Siberia, and much more. 

The key question is this: How central was the role played by colonial 
and semicolonial enterprise in the seventeenth-century rise of Europe and 
of capitalism within Europe? The model I would build involves two 
elements. The first is a continuation and enlargement of the sixteenth- 
century processes, which, as I argued, involved a sluggishly growing 
European economy quickened into rapid development by extra-European 
forces after 1492. By the middle of the next century the European 
bourgeoisie had strengthened their class position and (in the key 
locations) had enticed much of the feudal aristocracy into joining 
bourgeois enterprise, 50 and had well begun the process of destroying 
protocapitalist enterprise outside of Europe, as a result of the inflowing 
capital from America (and secondarily in that period, Africa and Asia). 

Now, apart from stocks of precious metal, it is improbable that 
capital accumulated from extra-European enterprise in 1500-1650 
amounted to a sizeable share of total invested capital in Europe, even in 
the more advanced regions of Europe, even in the economic sectors in 
which capital was more or less fluid. What it did do was provide a critical 
increment: everywhere it allowed the merchant-entrepreneurial commu- 
nity to offer higher prices for products, labor, and land; everywhere it put 
investment capital in the hands of classes and communities other than 
the traditional elite, the group less likely to accumulate beyond its social 
needs and less likely to reinvest profits in new ventures. Colonial capital, 
in a word, was new capital. Without it, the sluggish late-medieval 
economy of pre- 1492 days would have continued its slow progress out of 
feudalism and toward capitalism (or something like capitalism), but there 
would have been no Seventeenth-Century Bourgeois Revolution. 

Perhaps the essence of capitalism, at a level of aggregation above the 
worker-capitalist class relation, is the reinvestment of profits to enlarge 
productive capacity. Capitalist enterprise can be technologically primi- 
tive or advanced but always, to survive, it must accumulate capital. It is 
never in equilibrium. This point leads us to focus on the conditions that 
permitted continued growth, exponential growth, in the sixteenth and 


seventeenth centuries. This growth did not involve technological change 
in any important way: production increases were mainly matters of 
drawing more workers and more productive materials into traditional 
productive processes to yield more output. Given the fact that capital for 
expansion was available because of the extra-European enterprises and 
other, related developments, the key problem in the seventeenth century 
must have been markets, or demand. The capitalist had access to capital, 
had access to labor — at the levels of production then prevailing a truly 
massive proletarianization was not necessary — and had access to raw 
materials (some European, some colonial). The growth of a capitalist 
enterprise in that period was perhaps constrained most seriously by the 
need to open up new markets: to sell more of the product so that more 
could be produced, more capital generated, and so on. 

Some of these markets were in Europe itself, reflecting at first the 
ability of capitalist enterprise to sell traditional products (like sugar) at 
lower costs than prevailed under the feudal economy, but gradually the 
urbanization and commercialization of the continent brought in feedback 
loops so that the newer way of life, generated by the rise of capitalism, 
itself generated more internal markets for capitalism. But probably the 
main growth of markets for protocapitalist enterprise in the seventeenth 
century, and thus the main stimulus for the rise of capitalism, was outside 
the system. This is well known in the case of trade with eastern Europe. 
It is known in the case of markets in America, Africa, and Asia, but the 
quantitative significance of these extra-European markets has not been 
fully evaluated. In the case of the English bourgeoisie, the main markets 
for capitalist enterprise, including agricultural and nonagricultural 
products from England and re-exported products from abroad, were in 
America, Africa, and Asia, along with nontraditional markets in the 
Baltic. For the Dutch, extra-European commerce was even more 
important. Italian communities continued to depend considerably on the 
eastern Mediterranean. 

In the seventeenth century, then, the crucial role of the extra- 
European world, added on to and perhaps more significant than its 
sixteenth-century role as provider of bullion and some other products, was 
to permit an expansion of demand — including forced demand, as on the 
slave plantations — for capitalist products, a demand sufficiently great so 
that productive capacity and output of capitalist enterprises could 
continue to grow at an incredibly fast rate. This growth in output was one 
of the two essential seventeenth-century forces involved in the rise of 
capitalism. The second force was, simply, the political triumph itself, the 
bourgeois revolution. This provided the bourgeoisie with the legal and 

AFTER 1492 

political power to rip apart the fabric of the society in its quest for 
accumulation. Forced proletarianization thereby became possible, as did 
government support for almost any strategy that the new accumulating 
elite had in mind. And an Industrial Revolution, a transformation of the 
methods of production so that output could increase at an even greater 
rate, became (one might say) inevitable. 


The phrase "the rise of capitalism" generally evokes an image of factories, 
steam engines, masses of wage workers, cities grimy with coal dust: 
industrial capitalism. Our discussion thus far has not dealt with the rise of 
industrial capitalism — the Industrial Revolution — but with the precur- 
sors to that momentous event. But let me, for a moment, review some of 
these precursors. 

Before 1492, most of the preconditions that would be critical for the 
eventual rise of industrial capitalism were present not merely in parts of 
Europe but also in parts of Asia and Africa. After 1492, in the sixteenth 
and seventeenth centuries, Europe acquired three additional precondi- 
tions. One was the very considerable accumulation of wealth from the 
mines and plantations of America and from trade in Asia and Africa. The 
second, closely related to the first, was the huge enlargement of markets 
outside of western Europe for products either produced in western Europe 
or imported and then reexported; that is, a very great and almost 
constantly growing demand. Third, and most important of all, the social 
sectors involved with capitalism took political power on a wide scale in 
western Europe, something that had not happened elsewhere except on 
very small terrains. This, the bourgeois revolution, allowed the emerging 
capitalist class-community to mobilize state power toward its further rise, 
such that the entire society contributed to the underwriting of colonial 
adventures and to the preparation of infrastructure such as cities and 
roads, while the state's police and military power could now be mobilized 
to force people off the land and into wage work, and to conscript people 
and resources for advantageous wars abroad. All three of these precursors, 
as I have argued, appeared because of — or would not have appeared had 
it not been for — colonialism. 

Historians engage in fierce debates about the causes of the Industrial 
Revolution. Most of the candidate causes, or "factors," are theories within 
the "European miracle" category which we discussed and tried to refute in 
Chapter 2. Propositions about, for instance, general medieval moderniza- 


tion of the European economy and polity, medieval technological 
revolutions, "rationality" in medieval and later times, and the like, are 
built into the most common explanations for the later emergence of an 
Industrial Revolution. We showed, I hope, that all of these processes were 
at work outside of Europe as well as inside, so that they cannot be enlisted 
as causes of an event that happened only in Europe. 

This is a problem where the sequence and dating of events is 
extremely important. The concept of the Industrial Revolution is usually 
bound up with two more specific transformations: the development of 
steam power and generally novel technology in industrial production, and 
the development of wage labor in industrial production. But the timing is 
wrong. The technological part of the Industrial Revolution became 
important very late in the process, too late to explain the revolution itself. 
It is certainly true that technological advances were taking place in 
European manufacturing during the period from 1492 to, say, 1750, but 
very little of this technology was unique to Europe, as we have seen, and, 
most crucially, the technological advances that eventually became 
important in increasing manufacturing production and increasing labor 
efficiency in that production occurred much later: in the last decades of 
the eighteenth century and, much more profusely, in the nineteenth 
century. In agriculture, the main technological advances were matters of 
increasing areal productivity in an environment of declining agricultural 
labor, but all of the essential technological changes that were involved in 
this process were traditional and were known outside of Europe. (A few 
scholars give great weight to newer crops like turnips, but such matters 
were of very minor importance — setting aside the much earlier 
introduction of the potato — compared to such things as the increased use 
of capital and purchased input nutrients. The fact that farmers in western 
Europe learned how to increase their production while decreasing labor 
inputs is not at all novel in the history and geography of agriculture. Thus 
the agricultural revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries 
can be considered an effect, not a cause, in the industrializing and 
urbanizing process.) So the technological side of the Industrial Revolu- 
tion was not primary cause except as it may have been primary cause for 
a hemisphere-wide and very slow transformation, as we discussed 
previously. It appeared too late. 

A somewhat similar argument can be given in response to the thesis 
that the development, by capitalism, of mass wage labor in manufacturing 
production was primary cause of the Industrial Revolution. This argument 
is most commonly put forth by those Marxist economists who hold to a 
strict construction of one of the arguments in Marx's Capital. It is 
indisputable that you cannot have fully mature industrial capitalism 

AFTER 1492 

without basing it in a wage-labor setting that is also a (relatively) free 
labor market, one in which workers can go from employer to employer. 
But these conditions did not exist prior to the late eighteenth century. 
Wage labor was predominant, but little of it was employed in 
manufacturing, and hardly ever did a worker confront a really free labor 
market, with real choices as to place of employment. These were features 
of industrial capitalism as it emerged after the Industrial Revolution really 
got rolling. 

All such theories about the causes of the Industrial Revolution are 
diffusionist in the sense, and to the degree, that they see the process as an 
internal evolution within European history and society. As we noted in 
Chapter 2, an antidiffusionist, anti-Eurocentric body of historical theory 
has been developing over the past 50-odd years, a body of theory 
developed mainly, but not solely, by scholars from the extra-European 
world. In no other arena of historical discussion has this emerging critical 
school had as great an impact as it has had on the debates about the 
origins of the Industrial Revolution. 

The thesis that industrial development in Europe depended in many 
ways on colonial processes was widely accepted in the eighteenth and 
early nineteenth centuries. 51 Later, perhaps because of the growth of 
diffusionist ideology with its guiding proposition that Europe is the 
autonomous source of progress, this thesis fell into disfavor among 
European historians. 52 It was forcefully advanced by a number of colonial 
scholars in the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps understandably it was Indian 
scholars who emphasized the fact that a highly developed Indian cotton 
textile industry not only provided some of the new technology for 
Britain's industry, particularly in dyeing, but also had to be forcibly 
suppressed by Britain — in a process which some Indian scholars call "the 
de-industrialization of India" — in order to allow the British industry to 
develop in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 53 (The cotton 
textile industry was the leading sector in the early Industrial Revolution.) 
Also in the 1930s, West Indian scholars, notably C. L. R. James and Eric 
Williams, began to advance the thesis that slave-based industry and the 
slave trade were crucial causal forces in British and French industrializa- 
tion. This general argument evolved into a broad theory which is now 
widely argued both by Caribbean scholars — it is sometimes called "the 
Caribbean school of history," rather too narrowly — and by others, many 
of whom are African-American and African scholars. This theory is of 
great importance, and I will try to summarize it briefly, ignoring a number 
of secondary disagreements among some of its proponents. 

The most basic and general argument, advanced first by C. L. R. 
James and Eric Williams, was the proposition that the West Indian 


slave-based plantation system in the seventeenth and eighteenth 
centuries was a highly advanced form of industrial system, implicitly the 
most advanced form in existence at that time. They, and later writers in 
the same scholarly tradition, showed that the plantation system involved 
very heavy capitalization, complex business organization, very advanced 
industrial technology (in milling, rum manufacture, transport, and so on), 
a large labor force in the sugar factory as well as in the fields, a 
considerable force of free workers and supervisors as well as slaves, and, 
most important of all, immense profits — profits not only from the 
plantation and its production but also from the slave trade and many 
ancillary components of what Williams called "the triangular trade." 54 
(Said James in his classic history of the Haitian revolution, The Black 
Jacobins, "the slave-trade and slavery were the economic basis of the 
French revolution . . . Nearly all the industries which developed in France 
during the eighteenth century had their origin in goods or commodities 
destined either for the coast of Guinea or for the Americas." 55 ) I would 
extend this argument to a slightly more general proposition: Within the 
overall economic space which the Europeans controlled in the 
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they found it possible to advance 
the capitalist industrial production system — large-scale, organized, sem- 
imechanized — to its highest level, for that era, mainly in the plantation 
system, using slave labor, until the evolution of industrial production as 
an overall system had evolved sufficiently so that profits could be made 
even when the labor force was paid a living wage, a wage permitting 
subsistence and reproduction of the working class, and the system could 
then be centrated, imported into Europe itself. 56 Stated differently, the 
earliest phase of the Industrial Revolution was so crude, undeveloped, and 
indeed barbaric that free labor could not be used, if the output was to be 
profitable. Therefore, the capture and forced labor of slaves was necessary 
for production, or, alternatively, colonial rule elsewhere (as in India) was 
needed to force the delivery of commodities at very low prices. 

Both James and Williams argued that the profits from this complex 
were crucial in providing much, perhaps most, of the capital required in 
the early phase of the Industrial Revolution. Williams's book, Capitalism 
and Slavery, provided the classic statement of and argument for this thesis. 
He showed in great detail how the profits from the slave trade, the slave 
plantation, and the ancillary economic sectors flowed into England and 
then into the forms of investment that fueled the Industrial Revolution 
and its infrastructure (canals, ports, and the like). Most of the mainstream 
(European) community of scholars has rejected this theoretical position. 
The general view is that the industrial revolution was an almost entirely 
intra-European phenomenon, and such matters as the slave trade, the 

AFTER 1492 

slave plantation, and the profits from all of this had to be merely a detail 
or footnote. 57 Periodically, efforts have been made to refute the theory, 
but the only part of the theory which has really been subjected to 
empirical critique is the most limited and in a way least crucial part. 
Engerman and some others tried to show that, if various assumptions of 
neoclassical economics are made about the eighteenth-century British 
economy, and if traditionally low calculations are used as regards the 
number of slaves brought to America, then it would appear that the slave 
trade was not really very profitable. But in fact the slave trade itself was 
only a part of the overall complex that Williams and others were looking 
at; in fact, the plantation as in industrial system was much closer to the 
center of their attention because it was here that labor was put to use in 
generating mass commodities. Inikori and others have shown that the 
numbers of slave transported to the Americas has been underestimated. 
Finally, the neoclassical assumptions (among them the argument that 
there were "normal" profits in an eighteenth-century industry, as though 
the Industrial Revolution and factor and product markets had already 
matured) are widely questioned. 

Another stream of criticism has come from some Marxists, among 
them Brenner and Laclau, who share the Eurocentric-diffusionist views of 
the conventional historical school just discussed. 58 Their positions tend 
to be grounded in two arguments, one of which is dogmatic and the other 
fallacious. First, they claim that unfree labor cannot, by definition, be 
considered part of capitalism. This has been answered by C. L. R. James 
who showed that the error is that of trying to judge a seventeenth- and 
eighteenth-century labor system by the standards of the mid-nineteenth 
century, the era of mature competitive capitalism as described by Marx. 
Even more effective has been the demonstration by Immanuel Waller- 
stein that capitalism uses a range of alternative labor systems under 
alternative production conditions, and forced labor is one of these 
alternative systems. 59 Second, the Marxist critics claim that processes that 
occurred outside of Europe and involved then the import of commodities 
and capital into Europe, must be denominated "exchange" rather than 
"production," and so cannot be considered crucial for industrial 
development or capitalism. This thesis is simply false: production on a 
slave plantation is just as much production as is production in a 
Birmingham needle factory. 

Scholars such as Bailey, Beckles, Darity, Mintz, Sheridan, Solow, 
Robinson, and Rodney, and (on a world-scale canvas) Amin, Waller- 
stein, and Frank, have, in recent years, given strong backing to the critical 
theory I have outlined here. 60 Conventional historians sometimes label it 
"the Williams thesis." My point is that this "thesis" is something much 


larger: it is the current state of the body of theory that pays adequate 
attention to the role played by colonialism in the Industrial Revolution. 

One other point of contention concerns the significance of demand. 
All parties, concede that the decisions to increase productive capacity, 
decisions which, in aggregate, led to the Industrial Revolution, were made 
on the basis of judgments that additional commodities, if produced, could 
be sold. The conventional historians generally treat the increase in 
demand as a somehow natural product of the modernization of Europe. 61 
The critical historians insist, rather, that colonialism was itself required in 
order to increase the level of demand such that industrialists would make 
efforts to increase capacity, efforts which, when the revolution got truly 
underway, involved the use of powerful new productive technology. The 
critical historians have indeed shown that an immense amount of demand 
was generated by the slave trade, by the plantations (demand for food, 
clothing, machinery, ships, and so on), and by the overall expansion of 
the trading sphere in which European commodities moved in the 
eighteenth century and thereafter. I would generalize the case as follows: 
there would not have been an Industrial Revolution had it not been for 
the immense demand that Europeans were able to generate in the 
colonies, and it was this fact that, more than anything else, pushed the 
Industrial Revolution forward. 

Capitalism arose as a world-scale process: as a world system. 
Capitalism became centrated in Europe because colonialism gave 
Europeans the power both to develop their own society and to prevent 
development from occurring elsewhere. It is this dynamic of development 
and underdevelopment which mainly explains the modern world. 

In this chapter and the two preceding ones I have tried to show, with 
empirical evidence, that there was no "European miracle." Africa, Asia, 
and Europe shared equally in the rise of capitalism prior to 1492. After 
that date, Europe took the lead. This happened, as I have tried to 
demonstrate in this chapter, because of Europe's location near America 
and because of the immense wealth obtained by Europeans in America 
and later in Asia and Africa — not because Europeans were brighter or 
bolder or better than non-Europeans, or more modern, more advanced, 
more progressive, more rational. These are myths of Eurocentric 
diffusionism and are best forgotten. 


1. Europeans did not "discover" America: the hemisphere was settled many 
millennia earlier by people who migrated in from Siberia and the Arctic. So I prefer 
not to conceptualize the European arrival as a "discovery." Likewise, the idea that the 

AFTER 1492 

Western Hemisphere is a "New World" is false since it was hardly new to those who 
lived there and greeted Columbus on his arrival in 1492. It is, however, very difficult 
to avoid using the phrase "New World" in certain contexts, and I will occasionally 
have to do so. 

2. See K. N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean (1985); 
Simkin, The TraditionalTrade of Asia (1968); Sherif, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar 
(1987). It is highly likely that West Africans sailed across to the Americas before 
1492. (See DeVisse and Labib, "Africa in Intercontinental Relations," 1984.) 
However, because there seem not to have been major mercantile-maritime port cities 
in West Africa — unlike East Africa — it is not likely that transatlantic voyages before 
1492 had significant impact on Africa or on America. This is probable for several 
reasons. First, in the absence of such major port cities and large-volume long-distance 
sea commerce, it is likely that ships along the coast were rather small. They would 
easily have been capable of a westward voyage to America, given the strong and steady 
trade winds blowing westward, but a return voyage would have to have been made far 
to the north or the south, in the zone of the westerlies — roughly as far north as the 
latitude of southern Europe or as far south as the latitude of Namibia. Therefore the 
round trip would have been a very formidable undertaking. On the other hand, we 
may indeed learn from future scholarship that West African sailors, Moroccan sailors, 
and West European sailors all were fishing and whaling quite regularly off the coast of 
America (perhaps on the Grand Banks) before 1492; if strong evidence for this 
emerges, then we would consider it likely that West Africans were familiar with the 
round-trip voyage and with some parts of the American coast. But we do not have 
such evidence at present, and we have to consider it more likely that any West 
African ships that reached America were blown off course, in which case a return 
voyage would have been very difficult. It would have to have been made without prior 
knowledge of the long, circuitous route (unless American sailors knew the route and 
gave navigational information to the African sailors — but we do not have convincing 
evidence at present that Americans crossed the Atlantic before 1492). Secondly, the 
portion of the American coast that is closest to Africa, roughly the Brazilian coast 
south of the mouth of the Amazon, seems not to have had major population 
concentrations and abundant gold and silver artifacts inviting trade or plunder. 
(Granted, if West Africans reached the West Indies, they would have found such 
artifacts in abundance, as did Columbus.) And thirdly, the complex of historical 
conditions that would turn a single voyage into the beginning of a massive conquest 
seem unlikely to have been present in coastal West Africa. Large-scale trade, a class 
of merchant-capitalists, banking and other institutions of capitalism, and the like, 
were found in interior West African urban centers, but not, it seems, in the urban 
centers along the coast: these were not important as mercantile-maritime centers. For 
the interior cities, major long-distance trade went northward and eastward overland, 
and it is unlikely that attempts would have been made to develop large-scale oceanic 
travel from a coastal harbor. 

Some scholars maintain the truth of two propositions about West African 
transatlantic voyaging that I cannot accept. The first of these asserts that Africans 
exerted an important influence on American cultures before 1492. The second asserts 
that West Africans crossed the Atlantic in much the same way as did Columbus, but 
they had different values than the Europeans, and did not choose to murder, plunder, 
enslave, and enrich themselves at the expense of Americans as did the Europeans; and 
therefore they did not attempt conquest. Most of the evidence offered in support of 


important precolumbian diffusion from Africa to America is taken from the old 
arguments of European scholars of the "extreme diffusionism" school we discussed in 
Chapter 1 . The extreme diffusionists claimed that ancient Egyptians or Phoenicians 
crossed the Atlantic, and, in essence, brought civilization to the Americans. Some 
modern scholars modify this mainly by insisting that because Egypt was a clearly 
African civilization — this I am certain is true — it was an African people, not a 
putatively European people, who brought civilization to the Americas. A second 
source of evidence is the apparently African facial features of the great Olmec head 
sculptures of southern Mexico. But some precolumbian Americans must have had 
these features, too: they are not rare among modern Latin American Indians. But the 
most serious objection to this theory is the following: The Olmec civilization is the 
oldest known civilization in the Americas. If Olmec civilization came from Africa, 
and was not developed indigenously by people of America, then we would have to say 
that Americans simply did not have the ability to civilize themselves; civilization had 
to be something brought in from elsewhere, by diffusion. This is viewed as a deep 
insult by Latin Americans, who maintain, I am sure correctly, that Western 
Hemisphere peoples developed civilization on their own. Perhaps they acquired a few 
domesticates from sailors arriving from across the Atlantic or the Pacific. But the real 
cultural development was a matter of independent invention, not diffusion. Again we 
notice that the form of argument comes from classical diffusionism: some human 
communities are inventive and others merely imitative. Based only on the thin and 
questionable evidence that has been presented thus far that Africans brought major 
cultural advances to America, this thesis is not persuasive. 

Somewhat more troublesome to me is the argument that when Africans crossed 
the Atlantic before or at the same time as Columbus did, they did not have the savage 
values of the Europeans, and so did not try to conquer, loot, and enslave. To accept 
this, one would have to believe that there is something absolutely fundamental in 
European culture, something very old, and very deeply embedded, that makes 
Europeans different from other humans. This admits a good part of the Eurocentric 
claim that Europeans are unique among humans; it merely inverts the argument and 
claims that their uniqueness lies not in progressiveness but in aggressiveness, 
predatoriness, and cupidity. I am much more comfortable with an argument that 
begins with the idea of a common basal human mentality ("psychic unity"). It then 
explains the bloodthirstiness of the European conquistadors as an effect of the kind of 
civilization they represented: its development of an oppressive class structure in 
feudalism, and its further development of protocapitalism, a system in which wealth 
is obtained at all cost and in any way possible. Bloodthirsty protocapitalist 
communities, ready and anxious to conquer, loot, and enslave wherever this brought 
a profit, were found in many parts of the Eastern Hemisphere, in all three continents. 
My argument in this book is that the key factor favoring European moves of conquest 
in the Americas, and not favoring West African moves of this sort, was the existence 
of major mercantile-maritime centers in coastal Europe, protocapitalist centers of the 
sort found in the interior of Africa but with the added features associated with 
long-distance oceanic trade. Sofala and Kilwa in East Africa had these features but 
Sofala and Kilwa were — as we note in this chapter — very much farther from the 
American looting grounds than were the Iberian ports and the Canary outports. (I 
have not cited specific scholars who hold these views that I criticize because a full and 
fair review of their theories is not possible in the space of a single long footnote. 
Obviously, I do not agree with the theory of Ivan Van Sertima, as presented in his 
important work They Came Before Columbus [1976], concerning the precolumbian 

AFTER 1492 

diffusion of major civilizing traits from Africa to America, although he is very 
probably correct in his view that Africans did come to America before Columbus did.) 

3. Filesi, China and Africa in the Middle Ages (1972); Ma Huan, The Overall 
Survey of the Ocean's Shores (1970); Panikkar, Asia and Western Influence (1959). 

4. I have not learned of documented evidence that North Africans or West 
Africans regularly sailed up and down the coast past Cape Bojador. (See DeVisse and 
Labib, "Africa in Intercontinental Relations," 1984.) Apparently medieval sailing 
techniques — European and non-European — had difficulty with the passage prior to 
the time when Portuguese voyages began in the fifteenth century. However, there was 
no question of "discovery." The sea route was known in antiquity. Important land 
routes paralleled the entire length of the coast, from Fez south to Takrur (near modern 
Dakar) and beyond (see Niane, "Mali and the Second Mandingo Expansion," 1984, 
and Levitzion, "The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500," 1971), and there 
were medieval-era settlements in the Canaries and along the coast itself. Basically, it 
was much cheaper to travel overland, and probably faster. What the Portuguese 
"discovered" was a method of outflanking the competing merchant interests of North 
and West Africa, by applying sailing technology known to Europeans and East 
Africans but not known (or at any rate used, or at any rate known to have been used) 
by West Africans in that period. It should be noted also that the Portuguese 
navigational strategy in passing Bojador was basically the same strategy used for 
voyages to the Atlantic islands, and probably known to Moroccan sailors as well as 

5. Blaut, "Diffusionism: A Uniformitarian Critique" (1987). 

6. For general reviews, see Crosby, The Columbian Exchange (1972) and 
McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976). See Borah and Cooke, "La Demografta Hist6rica 
de America Latina: Necesidades y Perspectivas" (1972); Whitmore, "A Simulation of 
Sixteenth-Century Population Collapse in the Basin of Mexico" (1991); Alchon, 
Native Society and Disease in Colonial Ecuador (1991); Lovell, " 'Heavy Shadows and 
Black Night': Disease and Depopulation in Colonical America" (1992). 

7. See Denevan, The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (1976), for a 
review of the disputes concerning the American population at the time of the 

8. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange (1972); Alchon, Native Society and Disease 
in Colonial Ecuador (1991). 

9. For a discussion of the various calculations, see Denevan, The Native 
Population of the Americas in 1492 (1976); Denevan, "The Pristine Myth: The 
Landscape of the Americas in 1492" (1992); Lovell, " 'Heavy Shadows and Black 
Night' " (1992); and Whitmore, "A Simulation of Sixteenth-Century Population 
Collapse in the Basin of Mexico" (1991). 

10. The assumption here is that population continued to grow so long as food 
resources for hunting, gathering, fishing, and shellfishing were abundant. At a certain 
purely hypothetical time, it is likely that people who had certainly already 
experimented with crop cultivation, found that a better supply of food (and fiber, etc.) 
would be obtained through agriculture, and so began the transformation. Note that 
this argument is in no way Malthusian. 

11. See Fiedel, Prehistory of the Americas (1987). 

12. See Crosby, The Columbian Exchange (1972), Lovell, " ' Heavy Shadows and 
Black Night,' " and Alchon, Native Society and Disease in Colonial Ecuador (1991). 

13. Miskimin, The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe, 1300-1460 (1969). 


14. Abel, Agricultural Fluctuations in Europe from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth 
Centuries (1980). 

15. de Vries, European Urbanization, 1500-1800 (1984). 

16. Hodgett, A Social and Economic History of Medieval Europe (1972) ("[The] 
200 years after c.1320 may be said to be a period of down-turn in the [European] 
economy as a whole," p. 212); Lopez and Miskimin, "The Economic Depression of the 
Renaissance," (1961-1962); C. T. Smith, An Historical Geography of Western Europe 
Before 1800 (1969). 

17. Lopez, "Hard Times and Investment in Culture" (1953); Thorndyke, 
"Renaissance or Prenaissance?" (1943). 

18. Braudel, "Prices in Europe from 1450 to 1750" (1967); de Vries, European 
Urbanization (1984). On the rapid impact of these changes on Asia, see, for example, 
Atwell, "International Bullion Flows and the Chinese Economy circa 1530-1650" 
(1982); Aziza Hasan, "The Silver Currency Output of the Mughal Empire and Prices 
in India during the 16th and 17th centuries" (1969). 

19. Cespedes, Latin America: The Early Years ((1974); McAlister, Spain and 
Portugal in the New World, 1492-1700 (1984). 

20. In classical political economy, and in some of modern Marxist economics, 
the idea of "primitive accumulation" serves as a kind of catchall for ways of 
accumulating capital that did not involve — in essence — capitalist enterprise. Pirate 
treasures and the like were "primitive accumulation," and, in general, the kind of 
wealth brought from the American colonies in the sixteenth century was considered 
primitive accumulation. (According to Marx, "The treasures captured outside Europe 
by undisguised looting, enslavement and murder flowed back to the mother-country 
and were turned into capital there": Marx, Capital, 1976, vol. 1, p. 918). But "primitive 
accumulation" cannot really be defined with any precision. I will argue here that the 
wealth accumulated in the Americas was primitive only in the sense that it was part 
of a preindustrial-capitalist economy. In other respects, notably in the involvement of 
labor and value produced by labor, it was regular accumulation. The distinction is very 
fundamental, as we will see, because, if what transpired in the colonies was not "real" 
or "ordinary" accumulation, scholars can claim that the colonial economy was 
backward and "feudal," rather than a primitive sort of capitalism. 

21. E. J. Hamilton, American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 
1501-1650 (1934); Brading and Cross, "Colonial Silver Mining: Mexico and Peru" 
(1972); H. and P. Chaunu, Seville et I'Atlantique (1504-1650), vol. 6, pt. 1 (1956); 
Cross, "American Bullion Production and Export 1550-1750" (1983). 

22. See note 19 above. 

23. Vicens Vives, An Economic History of Spain (1969). 

24. Vilar, A History of Gold andMoney, 1450-1920 (1976). 

25. There remained, nonetheless, a very large trade carried on by non-European 
merchants in the China Seas and the Indian Ocean. 

26. E. ]. Hamilton, "American Treasure and the Rise of Capitalism" (1929), and 
American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain (1934). Also see the important 
book by Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier (1951), which builds in part on 
Hamilton's theory to argue for the great importance of the Americas in the rise of 
Europe during this period and later. 

27. Galloway, The Sugar Cane Industry: An Historical Geography from its Origins 
to 1914 (1989); Deerr, The History of Sugar (1949-1950). 

28. See, for example, Galloway, The Sugar Cane Industry (1989); Deerr, The 
History of Sugar (1949-1950); Watson, Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic 
World: The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques, 700-1 100 (1983); N. S. Gupta, 

AFTER 1492 

Industrial Structure of India During the Medieval Period (1970); Niane, ed., UNESCO 
General History of Africa, Vol. 4. (1984); Bray, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 
6, Part 2, Agriculture (1984). 

29. Deerr, The History of Sugar (1949-1950). 

30. Simonsen, Historia Econdmica do Brasil, 1500-1820 (1944); Furtado, The 
Economic Growth of Brazil (1963); Minchinton, The Growth of English Overseas Trade 
(1969). Also see the more general, but extremely important, works of I. Wallerstein, 
A. G. Frank, and S. Amin, particularly Wallerstein's The Modern World System, 3 vols. 
(1974-1988), Frank's Capitalism and underdevelopment in Latin America (1968) and his 
World Accumulation, 1492-1789 (1978), and Amin's Accumulation on a World Scale 
(1974) as well as his Unequal Development (1976). 

31. Edel, "The Brazilian Sugar Cycle of the 17th Century and the Rise of West 
Indian Competition'^ 1969). 

32. Furtado, Economic Growth of Brazil (1963). 

33. See K. N. Chaudhuri, Trade and civilization in the Indian Ocean (1985); Satish 
Chandra, The Indian Ocean: Explorations in History, Commerce and Politics (1987); 
Magalhaes-Godinho, L'Economie de L'Empire Portugais aux XV et XVI Siecles (1969). 

34. de Vries, European Urbanization (1984). 

35. William Denevan, "Introduction," in Denevan, ed., The Native Population 
of the Americas in 1492 (1976), and "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the 
Americas in 1492" (1992; Lovell, " 'Heavy Shadows and Black Night' " (1992). 

36. See Borah and Cook, "La demograffa hist<5rica de America Latina: 
necesidades y perspectivas" (1972); Whitmore, "A Simulation of Sixteenth-Century 
Population Collapse in the Basin of Mexico" (1991). 

37. Semo, Historia del Capitalismo en Mexico: Los Origenes, 1521-1763 (1982). 

38. Radell, "The Indian Slave Trade and Population of Nicaragua During the 
Sixteenth Century" (1976). 

39. Bakewell, "Mining in Colonial Spanish America" (1984). 

40. Semo, Historia del Capitalismo (1982). 

41. For various calculations, see Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade (1969); 
Furtado, Economic Growth of Brazil (1963); Deerr, History of Sugar (1949-1950); 
Florescano, "The Formation and Economic Structure of the Hacienda in New Spain"; 
Inikori, The African Slave Trade from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century (1979), esp. 
pp. 57 and 248; McAlister, Spain and Portugal in the New World (1984). 

42. McAlister, Spain and Portugal in the New World (1984). 

43. In the present discussion I am giving far too little attention to Africa and 
particularly to the effects of the slave trade in Africa. See Chapter 2. 

44. Fisher, "The Price Revolution: A Monetary Interpretation" (1989). 

45. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 
1624-1713 (1972), pp., 10-11. 

46. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1952 edition). 

47. Hannemann, The Diffusion of the Reformation in Southwestern Germany, 
1518-1534 (1915). 

48. There is debate as to why the center shifted from Iberia to the lower 
Rhine-southern England region. Perhaps the same forces which had made this 
northern region a mercantile-maritime center in the Middle Ages permitted it to gain 
control of the overseas enterprise: namely, large population, abundant nearby fertile 
land and forest resources, access to many markets (the Rhine, the Baltic, etc.). 
Vis-a-vis Italy, it held most of these same advantages plus that of location on the 
Atlantic and possession of the requirements for rapid growth of oceanic shipping and 
fishing fleets. 


49. See Deerr, The History of Sugar (1949-1950); Curtin, The Atlantic Slave 
Trade (1969); and Inikori, The African Slave Trade from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth 
Century (1979). The question whether slave labor is or is not proletarian — a serious 
issue in discussions of the slave plantation system (see Mintz, Sweetness and Power: 
The Place of Sugar in Modern History, 1985) — will be taken up later in this chapter. In 
any event there is no disagreement about the contribution of slave (and other forced) 
labor to capital accumulation, hence to surplus value generation, using "surplus value" 
in a sense appropriate to modes of production different from industrial capitalism. 

50. However, a good share of the old landowning elite joined in the new 
enterprise. It is not correct to assume that the new protocapitalist elite was in simple 
opposition to the old elite. There is much confusion on this matter, some of it 
occasioned by literal acceptance of Marx's idea that merchants are somehow not the 
class that evolves into the early capitalist, entrepreneurial, accumulating class. On the 
role of medieval merchants in protocapitalism, see Thrupp, The Merchant Class of 
Medieval London (1300-1500) (1948); Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers 

51. See R. W. Bailey, "Africa, the Slave Trade, and the Rise of Industrial 
Capitalism in Europe and the United States: A Historiographic Review" (1986); W. 
Darity, Jr., "British Industry and the West Indies Plantations" (1990). 

52. There were, of course, exceptions. Brooks Adams, in his 1895 work The Law 
of Civilization and Decay, argued (pp. 259-260) that the British victory at Plassey in 
1757, which immediately gave Britain access to cheap Indian cotton (and other 
Indian "plunder") set into motion the explosive industrialization of Britain's cotton 
textile industry, leading directly and immediately to the major inventions of that 
industry: the spinning jenny in 1764, the mule in 1776, and Watt's steam engine in 

53. See Palme Dutt, The Problem of India (1943); Alavi et al., Capitalism and 
Colonial Production (1982). 

54. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San 
Domingo Revolution (1938) and A History of Negro Revolt (1938); Eric Williams, 
Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Also see the later work by James, "The Atlantic Slave 
Trade and Slavery: Some Interpretations of their Significance in the Development of 
the United States and the Western World" (1970); and the later work by Williams, 
British Historians and the West Indies (1966). Important recent contributions include: 
R. W. Bailey, "The Slave(ry) Trade and the Development of Capitalism in the 
United States: The Textile Industry of New England" (1990); W. Darity, "British 
Industry and the West Indian Plantations" (1990); J. Inikori, "Slavery and the 
Revolution in Cotton Textile Production in England " (1989). Also see note 60 

55. The Black Jacobins (1938), pp. 47-48. 

56. I have argued elsewhere (Blaut, The National Question, 1987b, chap. 7) that 
the level of oppression and exploitation associated with slave labor as it was used in 
the plantations could not have been applied to members of the European cultural 
community itself. (This was indeed tried, but quickly abandoned in favor of slave 
labor.) Generally, cultural rules and practices limit the level of exploitation of 
producers within a society — a matter of maintaining social peace in a society — but no 
such rules apply to external or foreign workers. 

57. See the excellent review by C. Robinson, "Capitalism, Slavery and 
Bourgeois Historiography" (1987). Also excellent is Bailey, "The Slave(ry) Trade and 
the Development of Capitalism in the United States" (1990). 

AFTER 1492 

58. See Brenner's "The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of 
Neo-Smithian Marxism" (1977); E. Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory 

59. Wallerstein, The Modern World System (1974-1988). 

60. See Bailey, "The Slave(ry) Trade and the Development of Capitalism in the 
United States" (1990), Darity, "British Industry and the West Indian Plantations" 
(1990), Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), and 
Robinson, "Capitalism, Slavery and Bourgeois Historiography" (1987); also, see 
Beckles, "The Williams Effect': Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery and the Growth 
of West Indian Political Economy" (1987); Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery (1973), and 
his "Eric Williams and Capitalism and Slavery: A Biographical and Historiographical 
Essay" (1987); Solow, "Capitalism and Slavery in the Exceedingly Long Run" (1987); 
Inikori, "Slavery and the Development of Industrial Capitalism" (1989); Rodney, 
How Europe Underdevebped Africa (1972). 

61. Some Marxists treat it this way, too: "[What] distinguished the English 
industrial development of the early modern period was its continuous character, its 
ability to sustain itself and to provide its own self-perpetuating dynamic. Here . . . the 
key was to be found in the capitalist structure of [English] agriculture" (Brenner, 
"Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe," 
1985, p. 53). 



This book has two basic themes or arguments. 
First, in Chapter 1, I try to explain what 
Eurocentric diffusionism is as a body of ideas, 
and to show how this theory — or supertheory, 
or world model — came to dominate European scholarly thought a century 
ago and why it still does so to a considerable extent today. And second, in 
Chapters 2 through 4, 1 carefully examine the single most important part 
of diffusionism, the theory of Europe's historical superiority or priority, 
the theory of "the European miracle," and I try to refute it. 

Diffusionism needs to be analyzed much more thoroughly than I 
have been able to do in this book. Many diffusionist theories and 
programs that, today, exert an important and unfortunate influence on 
many fields of thought and action have not been discussed here. In other 
writings I have explored the influence of diffusionism on theory and 
practice concerning the national question, or nationalism, 1 and on theory 
and practice concerning the development of peasant agriculture. 2 Other 
writers have, of course, examined many aspects of diffusionism and 
problems caused by diffusionism. 3 But, overall, the critique of diffusionism 
has barely begun. 

The critique will have to range across many fields of scholarship and 
practice. Here — just to make this point clear — are four examples. 

1 . Philosophical dualism, the body of epistemological and ontologi- 
cal doctrine developed in European thought from Descartes to Kant and 
the neo-Kantians, appears to be, in part, a projection of the dualism of 
Inside and Outside. Reason is Inside. Mere matter, mere sensuousness, is 
Outside — the non-European world and the irrational mentation of its 

2. The so-called Big Bang Theory, the theory that everything began 
at one space-time point and this point was here, seems to be diffusionism 



on the largest canvas of all. Big Bang cosmogony appears to be fortified 
less by empirical evidence than by a hunch that the whole idea is 
"reasonable" — the essential judgment (as we noticed in Chapter 1) by 
which culture projects its prejudices into science. 4 

3. The theory that AIDS diffused out of Africa is very reminiscent of 
a historical chain of theories, each explaining some plague as a 
counterdiffusion from non-Europe to Europe. (We discussed aspects of 
this question in Chapters 1 and 2.) A recent book entitled AIDS, Africa 
and Racism gives important evidence that the AIDS-out-of-Africa 
doctrine may, indeed, be simply a new incarnation of this diffusionist 
view of human disease. 5 If this is the case, the matter of causality of 
HIV-retroviruS'Caused disease may have to be rethought. The forms found 
outside of Africa may be more relevant for explanation and cure than 
those inside Africa. 

4- Many theories about economic history since the beginning of the 
Industrial Revolution, and about economic development today, seem to 
be steeped in diffusionism. The Industrial Revolution has not diffused 
outward from Europe to non-Europe. Not only does it have origins in 
non-Europe as well as Europe (we discussed this matter in Chapter 4), but 
the notion that industrialization has been spreading to the non-European 
world is largely a false (conformal) idea. The diffusion of maquiladora'Style 
assembly-plant activities in the Third World is not genuine industrializa- 
tion but rather a kind of world-scale putting-out system: Outside provides 
cheap labor, Inside provides most of the raw materials and most of the 
consumption, and garners nearly all of the profit as well as the permanent 
infrastructure. The industrialization of Japan began long ago and was not 
an effect of diffusion. 6 The industrialization of Korea and one or two East 
Asian ministates in recent decades has not been imitated elsewhere.? The 
diffusion of industrialization, therefore, is not a simple and natural 
diffusion process, but a political agenda. And an agenda for scholarly 

This book, therefore, has no real conclusion. The book itself is an 
introduction: an introduction to the study, to the diagnosis and 
treatment, of a serious malady of the mind. 


1. Blaut, The National Question (1987b); Blaut and Figueroa, Aspectos de la 
cuestion nacional en Puerto Rico (1988). 

2. Blaut, "Two Views of Diffusion" (1977) and "Diffusionism: A Uniformicarian 
Critique" (1987a). 


3. Reference has been made to this work in Chapters 2, 3, and 4- 

4. See Talkington, "But the Editor Looks at the Universe from a Different 
Frame of Reference" (1986); Frankel, "Marxism and Physics: A New Look" (1991). 

5. Chirimuuta and Chirimuuta, AIDS, Africa and Racism (1989). A naively 
diffusionist view of AIDS is given in Shannon and Pyle, "The Origin and Diffusion 
of AIDS" (1989); see the critique of this view in Watts, Okello, and Watts, "Medical 
Geography and AIDS" (1990). 

6. Japan became industrialized precisely because of a lack of diffusion. It was the 
only major non-European country that managed to avoid European domination, and 
this resulted from its inaccessibility. It was, among major societies, the farthest and 
most inaccessible from the standpoint of Europeans, and by the time European power 
had subdued China, in the nineteenth century, Japan had been able to begin its 
military modernization; hence the victory over Russia, the beginnings of colonial 
expansion, and the onset of an industrial revolution around 1900. 

7. At the other end of the scale, giant countries like India and Brazil have a great 
deal of industry but in proportion to their size — and on a per capita measurement — 
they are no more industrialized than are smaller Third world countries. See Amin, 
Delinking: Toward a Poly centric World (1990). 


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Abel, W., 209 

Abu-Lughod, J., 51, 57, 172, 177, 178 
Acapulco, 190 
Accessibility. See Location 
Accumulation, 129, 152, 187, 189, 192, 195, 
199, 204-206, 212 
primitive, 188, 189, 210 
Adams, B., 212 
Adulthood, 17, 95-98 

Africa, Africans, 4, 15, 20-22, 45, 51, 57, 62, 64, 
98-99, 103, 105-107, 109, 116, 119, 120, 
123-124, 138, 140, 149, 153, 155-158, 160, 
162, 166, 168-169, 171, 173-174, 180, 183, 
187, 188, 189, 193, 195, 196, 197, 200, 201, 
203, 206, 209 
East, 167, 182-183, 191, 192, 207-209 
South, 89, 141, 144, 152, 155-157, 166-167 
apartheid in, 75, 141, 144 
myth of emptiness in, 75 
North, 3, 46, 82-90, 157, 209 
tropical, 69-80, 140, 141 
West, 79, 155, 181-183, 191, 204, 207-209 
African-Americans, 98 
Agriculture, 29, 44-45, 117, 154-165, 169 
aridity and, 80-90, 143 
drainage, 85-86, 143, 164, 174 
and industrial revolution, 213 
intensification and commercialization, 157— 

158, 161, 163-164, 166 
irrigated, 74-78, 80-90, 109-110, 143, 162, 
164, 174 

labor productivity in, 89, 91, 143, 157, 174 

medieval, 110-115, 157-165, 168 

origins. See Agricultural revolution 

peasant. See Peasants 

plantation. See Plantations 

rain-fed (dry field), 74-76, 84, 86, 88-91 

sedentary, 74-76 

shifting, 72-76, 141-142, 174 

tropical, 70-77, 140, 174 
Agricultural revolution, 4, 7, 23, 44-45, 155— 

157, 164, 172, 174, 185-186, 209 
Ahn, P., 140 
AIDS, 77, 215-216 

and Africa, 142,215-216 
Ajayi.J., 176 
Akan, 157 
Alavi, K, 212 
Alchon, S., 209 
Alliance for Progress, 49 
Amazon river and basin, 71, 74, 207 
America, 51, 103, 152, 162, 173, 180, 183-184, 
187, 200, 204, 206, 208-209 

Latin, 22, 76, 131 

North, 180 

South, 141 
Americans, Native, 97, 138, 194, 195 
Amin, S., 51, 56, 57, 47, 135, 136, 137, 154, 173, 

Andean region, 20, 184, 194, 195 
Anderson, J., 44 

Anderson, P., 58, 108, 138, 142, 146, 176 
Angola, 49 
Anthrax, 78 

Anthropology, 23-24, 30-33, 65, 97, 102 

and primitive mind, 97, 102 
Antilles. See West Indies, Antilles 
Antwerp, 189-190, 192 
Appadorai, A., 176 
Arabia, 92, 167 
Arabs, 98, 99, 181 

Aristocracy, medieval, 123, 125-127 

Armenia, 43 

Aryan theory, 12, 84, 89 



Asad, X, 48 

Asia, 21-22, 77, 80-90, 103-107, 123, 155-158, 
160, 162, 165-166, 171, 173, 180, 183, 
187-189, 193, 195, 196, 197, 200, 206 
aridity in, 80-90 
East, 30, 46, 152, 167 
South, 46, 56, 76, 167 
Southeast, 21, 56, 76, 117-120, 167, 171, 

Asiatic mode of production, 81-83, 125, 157 
Aston, X, 140, 149, 150 
Athenian empire, 125 
Atlantic Ocean, 181-182, 211 

crossing, 14, 181, 207-209 
Atwell, W., 210 
Augsburg, 197 
Australians, 45 
Azores Islands, 182 
Aztecs, 185 

Baechler.J., 122-123, 125-127, 147, 149, 160, 

Bailey, A., 142 
Bailey, R., 205, 212, 213 
Bakewell, P., 211 
Bali, 120 

Baltic Sea, 167, 171, 197, 200, 211 
Bangladesh, 71 
Barbados, 68, 71, 197 
Barbarism, zone of, 14 
Barnes, H. E, 44 
Beckles, H., 205, 213 
Belief-value matrix, 38 
Beliefs, 30-43 

compatibility of, 34-37 

conformality and binding of, 35-41 

ethnography of, 30-41 

explicit and implicit, 36, 40-41, 65 

truth and, 30-32 
Bengal, 166 
Berkner, L., 150 

Bernal, M., 44, 55, 57, 137, 138, 144 
Bernier, E, 142 

Bible Lands, 3, 5, 7, 29, 43-45, 81 
Big Bang Theory, 214-216 

conception and, 67, 139 
control, 66-67, 129, 139 
rates, 128-130, 140 

Bjtfrklund, O., 149 
Black, C, 136 
Black death, 46, 77 
Black magic, 16 

Blaut, ]., 48, 49, 136, 138, 140, 141, 142, 143, 
145, 149, 173, 174, 175, 176, 177, 178, 209, 
212, 215 

Blockages, historical, 69, 80, 117, 137 

Blow-gun, 11 

Blum, J., 139 

Boas, E, 97, 139, 144 

Bogeyman, 16, 47 

Bois G., 150 
Bojador, Cape, 209 
Borah, W., 209,211 

Bourgeois revolutions, 165, 179-180, 187, 199, 

Bourgeoisie, 179, 195 

Bowler, P., 48, 138, 141, 144 

Brading, D., 210 

Brantlinger, P., 48 

Braudel,E, 178,210 

Bray, Francesca, 143, 146, 211 

Brazil, 20, 182, 188, 191-192, 195, 197, 216 

Brenner, R., 58, 108, 127-128, 138, 146, 149, 

150, 151, 160, 176, 177, 205, 213 
Britain, 108, 146-147, 150, 166, 179, 187-188, 

191-192, 197, 203, 211,213 
Brown, L., 145 
Buck, J. L, 131 

Buckle, H. X, 76, 77, 141, 142 
Burghers. See Bourgeoisie 
Burma, 147 

Cabral, A., 54, 136 
Cairo, 187 
Calicut, 190, 196 
Cambodia, 147 
Cambridge University, 135 
Canada, 43, 156 
Canals, in China, 93, 113 
Canary Islands, 182, 208, 209 
Cape Bojador, 209 
Cape of Good Hope, 181 
Capes and bays theory, 92, 122 
Capitalism, 8, 51, 102, 152, 161-163, 165, 167, 
169-170, 179-180, 187-206, 210 

centration of, 180, 191, 197, 201-206 

in colonial America, 55 

origins and rise, 55, 102, 127-128, 150 

triumph of, 179 
Caribbean. See under West Indies 
Carter, G., 47 
Carus-Wilson, E., 212 
Cassava, 156 
Caucasus, 11, 43 
Center-periphery model, 14 
Centration of capitalism. See Capitalism, centra- 
tion of 
Cespedes, G., 210 
Ch'in empire, 125 
Chad, Lake and region, 120, 157 
Chambers, M., 46 
Chan-Cheung,]., 177 
Chandra, B., 48, 142 
Chandra, S., 177,211 
Chao Phraya Basin, 120 
Chariots, 143 

Chaudhuri, K. N., 177, 207, 211 
Chaudhuri, S., 177 
Chaunu, H. and P., 210 
Cheng Ho, 181, 182, 207 
Chicherov, A., 176 
Childhood, 17, 95-98 


China, 15, 21, 29, 46-47, 56-57, 78, 82, 87, 94, 
96, 110, 113, 115-120, 122-123, 125, 131, 
158-159, 166-167, 169-170, 173, 181-182, 
198, 216 

Jones on, 67, 106-107 

Weber on, 64, 103, 116 
Chirimuuta, R. C. and R. J., 142, 216 
Christendom, 18 
Christianity, 123-124 

and diffusionism, 18-19, 21, 60-61, 108 

Western (L. White, Jr.), 114-115 
Church, 119, 123-124, 147-149 
Cipolla, C, 118-119, 147 
Cities, 153, 161, 167, 196, 207 

ancient, 84 

European, 84, 128, 188, 193 

medieval, 113, 167, 175, 177 

mercantile-maritime, 167-173, 181, 196, 207 

Weber on, 84, 103-104, 116 
City-states, 104, 123, 167, 171 
Civil Rights movement, 5, 137 
Civilization, zone of, 14 
Class, 33-34, 41, 57, 88, 119, 123-128, 154, 
157-158, 170 

Baechleron, 125-127 

Brenner on, 127-128, 150 

Godelier on, 127 

in precolonial Africa, 124—125 
Class struggle, 8, 53, 127, 149, 150 
Classless society, 123-125 
Climate and personality, 70—7 1 
Climatic determinism or energy, 70-71, 140 
Clocks, in China, 117 
Cockburn, A., 140, 141 
Cognition, 98 

of environmental hazards, 93, 101 

of space, 101 
Cohen, I., 145 
Collier, W, 43, 44 
Collins, K., 140 
Collyer, O., 140 

Colonial Development and Welfare, 49 
Colonial Office, British, 24 
Colonialism, 2, 4, 10, 18-30, 41, 49, 51, 53-57, 
62, 70-71, 75, 81, 96, 135, 140, 150, 
152-153, 179, 187-206 
and diffusionism, 16, 18-30, 53-58 
classical, 21-25 
modern, 26-30 

and rise of Europe, 2, 17-29, 187-205 

settler, 15, 21-22, 25, 183 
Colonizer's model, 10, 17-30, 41-42 
Columbus, C, 209 
Congo, 157 
Conklin, H., 49 
Conquest of America, 179-186 

disease and, 183-186 

technology and, 182-184 
Consciousness, 98, 100-101, 144 
Contemporary ancestors, theory of, 16 
Continence, European sexual, 66-68, 121, 133— 

Hall on, 134 

Jones on, 67, 121 
Cook, S. E, 209,211 
Cooper, J., 150 
Cordell, D., 139 

Core areas, ecological and political, 93-97, 120, 

Coromandel, 166 
Cortes, H. 185, 186 

Cotton, cotton textile industry, 164, 166, 212 

in Britain and India, 203 
Counterdiffusion, 17, 77. See also Black magic; 

Dracula; AIDS; Plagues 
Coursey, D., 141 
Cro-Magnon, 4 

Crone, P., 131, 133, 144, 150, 151 

Croot, P., 150, 151 

Crosby, A, 209 

Cross, H. C, 210 

Crowder, M., 176 

Cuba, 29, 53, 185 

Culture, 11, 27, 32-33, 94, 123, 172, 183, 208, 

Curtin, P., 76, 79, 140, 141, 211, 212 
Cyprus, 191 

Dalai, E, 144 

Danube R., 93 

Darby, H., 146 

Darity.W, Jr., 205,212, 213 

Darwin, C, 4, 23 

Das Gupta, A., 175 

Decolonization, 28-30, 49, 55, 137 

Deerr.Noel, 210, 211, 212 

Degeneration, 44-45 

Demesnes, farming, 112, 159 

Democracy, 8, 88, 107, 120-121, 126 

Demography, and diffusionism, 42, 53, 66-68, 

93, 119, 139 
Denevan, W, 140, 143, 174, 209, 211 
Dependency theory, 55, 137, 149, 177 

of America, 141, 184-186, 194 

of Mexico, 184, 194 

of West Africa, 76, 78-79 
Descarte, R., 214 

Development, 27-30, 53-55, 100-101, 105, 129, 
133, 136, 152-153, 214-215 

even and uneven, 152-153, 162 
DeVisseJ., 207, 209 
Dew, T, 44 
Dewey, J. 38, 49, 145 
Di Meglio, R., 176, 177 
Diffusion, 11, 47, 98, 100-101, 115, 136, 145, 
155-157, 161-162, 171, 173-174, 215 

criss-cross, 115, 156, 160-162, 167, 171, 173 
Diffusionism, 11-30, 52-54, 70, 100, 104, 137, 
142, 180, 183, 189, 203, 205, 208, 214-215 

as a belief system, 41—43 

classical, 21-26, 81, 95-98, 170 

extreme, 11-12, 27,47,49 

modern, 26-30 


Diffusionism {cant.) 

origins of, 18-21 
Dirks, R, 147 
Disasters, natural, 93, 145 
Disease, 60, 107, 142. See also Plagues 

and conquest of America, 184-186 

and Africa, 77-80, 142 

and Europe, 77-78 

and tropics, 77-80, 142 
Dobb, M., 173, 176, 177 
Doolittle, W., 143 
Dracula, 16, 21, 47 
Dualism, 95-97 

Man and Nature, 112 

mind-body, 101 

philosophical, 101, 145, 214 
Dualistic-developmental theory of 

rationality, 95-98 
DuBois, W. E. B., 55 
Dunn, R. S., 211 
Duruy, V, 44 
Dutt, R. P., 55, 212 
Duyvendak, J., 56, 137 

East India companies, 24, 197 
East Indies, Dutch, 49 
Edel, M„ 211 
Eden, Garden of, 3, 43-44 
Edmonson, M., 47 
Education, U. S., 101, 145 
Egypt, 12, 47, 82-83, 87, 143, 191-192, 197, 208 
El Salvador, 7 1 
Eliot Smith, G., 47, 49 
Elvin, M., 57, 117, 137, 175, 176, 177 
Empires, 120, 147 
Chinese, 123 

Oriental. See Oriental despotism 

Roman, 147 ' 
Emptiness, myth of, 15, 25, 75 
Engels, E, 48, 82-84, 86, 127, 142 
Engerman, S., 205 
England. See Britain 
Environment, 69-94, 119 

arid, 80-90 

European, 90-94 

humid-tropical, 69-80, 141 
Environmentalism, environmental 

determinism, 69, 140, 141, 182, 183 
Episteme, Western (Marglin), 101 
Equilibrium theories, 27-28 
Ethiopia, 157 
Ethnogeography, 23, 32 
Ethnography of beliefs. See Beliefs 
Ethnohistory, 32 
Ethnoscience, 2, 32-43, 49 
Ethology, 105, 107, 151 

Eurocentrism. 1-2, 7-11, 47. See also Diffusion- 

Europe, 43, 45, 51, 90-94, 152, 186-187 

Greater, 3-8, 14, 46 
European intellect, 1, 15-17, 20, 95-108, 121 

mind, 58 

miracle, myth of 2, 50-151, 214 

personality, 132-135, 144 

rationality. See Rationality, European 

spirit, 1, 15-17, 20, 103-104, 121 
Evolution, cultural, 11, 16-17, 22-26, 47, 57, 
65, 85, 127, 152-153, 172, 174, 185, 209 
Evolutionism, 12, 24, 47 
Exploitation, internal and external, 161 

Family, 58, 68, 119, 128-135 
extended and nuclear, 128-134, 150 
European, 90, 126, 128-135 

Hajnal on, 129-130 

Macfarlane on, 131-134 

modern, 128 

preindustrial, traditional, 68, 128 

Stone on, 130-135 
Fei Hsiao-tung, 175 
Feminism, 139 

Feudal mode of production, 154, 157-165, 171, 

Feudal property and tenure, 83, 104, 158 
Feudalism, 8, 46,51,95, 110, 112, 126-128, 146, 
152-154, 158-165, 197, 210 

in Africa, 157-158 

in India, 55, 158, 160, 175 
Fez, 209 
Fiedel, S., 209 
Fiefs, 158, 175 
Figueroa, L., 215 
Filesi, T. 209 
Finley, M., 108, 146 
Fisher, D., 211 
Fisher, G., 44 

Fisheries, Atlantic, 92, 182, 188, 192, 196-197, 

Flanders, 166, 188, 197 
Fleck, L., 49 
Florescano, E., 211 
Forests, 89, 106, 140, 143 

and ancient Europeans, 84, 107 

European, 89-90, 94, 108 

tropical, 71-76 
Foster, G., 145 
Frake, C, 49 

France, 147, 179, 203, 204 
Frank, A. G., 51, 149, 205,211 
Frankel, H., 216 
Freedman, M., 150, 

Freedom, love of, in Europe, 26, 107, 119, 

120-121, 171 
Freeman, E., 44 
Freund, J., 145 
FuChu-fu 175, 176 
Fukien, 166 
Functionalism, 27 
Furtado, C. 211 

Galloway, J. H., 210 
Garraty, J., 141 
Gay, P., 141 


Genesis, Book of, 23, 43-45 
Genoa, 189 

Gentry and nobility, 158 
Geography, 1, 3-8, 17, 23-24, 31-32, 45, 47, 65, 
96-97, 101, 125, 127, 136 
in 19th-century education, 3—7, 96 
Germanic culture, ancient, 25, 131—132 
Germany, 147 
Gernet.J., 176, 177 
Giblin, J., 142 
Gilfillan, S., 71, 140 
Gill, D., 139 
Gilman, A., 44 

Glorious revolution (English), 165, 197 
Godelier, M., 127, 149 
Goitein, S., 178 
Gold, 183, 188-191 

American production, 188-191 

and Asian trade, 118, 190 

stock in E. Hemisphere, 189 
Gold Coast, 166 
Golson.J., 143, 174 
Goodfield, J., 48 
Gopal, L, 175 
Gopal, S., 176 
Gossett, T., 48, 138, 139 
Gould, P., 145 
Grand Banks, 182, 207 
Greece, 4, 8, 50, 88, 107-108, 123, 147 
Greenland, D., 140 
Gregory, J., 139 
Grosvenor, E., 44 
Guilds, medieval, 166 
Gunpowder, 115, 117 
Guns, cannon, in China, 117-119, 173 
Gupta, N. S., 177,210 

Habib, 1., 55, 175, 176, 177 

Hagen, E., 100-101, 144 

Haitian revolution, 204 

Hajnal.J., 129-130, 150 

Hall, J. A., 59, 67, 77, 86-87, 91, 108, 122-124, 

139, 141, 143, 144, 147, 151 
Hallam, H., 124, 147 
Haller, J., 139 
Hallpike, C, 145 
Ham, 44 

Hamilton, E. J., 190-191,210 
Handler, R., 150, 151 
Hannemann, M., 211 
Hanseatic League and cities, 197 
Hardy, E, 140 
Harewood, ]., 140 
Harris, M., 44, 47, 49, 138 
Harrison, P., 143, 176 
Hasan, A, 175,210 
Haskel, D., 48 
Hassan, E, 139 
Hawaii, 156 
Hecht, S., 140, 141 
Hegel, G. W. E, 53, 142 
Hegelianism, 43, 48, 91, 120 

Hilgemann, W., 149 
Hilton, R, 140, 150 
Historians, 52-59, 65, 136 

absolutionist, 76, 79-80 
Historical and ahistorical societies, 137 
Historical atlases, 124 
Historiography, modernization and, 53-59 
History, 1, 3-8, 97, 127 

in 19th-century education, 3-7, 43^46 

march of (Mann), 91, 108 

textbooks, 3-7, 43-46, 96, 124 

Western, 46 

world, 46 
Hodgett, A. J., 210 

Holism and reductionism, 22, 33, 41, 48, 119 

Htflmhoe, H., 149 
Hopkins, A., 174 

Horse-collar, horse power, 111, 112—114 
Household, extended-family and nuclear- 
family, 128-129 
Hoyle, R., 150 
Huddleston, L., 48 
Hudson, B., 45 
Hulme, P., 48 
Humboldt, W. von, 97 
Huntington, E., 70 

Hydraulic society. See Agriculture, irrigated; 
Asiatic mode of production; Oriental despot- 

Iberia, 181-182, 183-184, 188, 197, 211 
Ibn al-Faqih, 167 
Ibn Khaldun, 183 
Iceland, 93 

India, 21, 47, 69, 82, 96, 98, 103, 106, 111, 116, 
119-120, 122, 131 
caste in, 122, 126, 161 
classes, 126 

de-industrialization of, 203 

medieval polity, 122 

personality (Weber), 64, 103, 138 
Indian Ocean, 92, 117-118, 171, 182 
Individual(ism), 25, 87, 90-91, 119, 132, 135, 

English, 132 

European, 87, 90-91, 107, 109, 132-133 
Indo-European peoples, languages, 44, 50, 88, 

97, 109, 131 
Indo-European warrior aristocracy (Baechler), 

123, 126 
Indochina, French, 49 
Indonesia, 92 
Indus valley, 82 

Industrial revolution, 8, 55, 107, 165, 179, 180, 
201-206, 213, 215-216 

and mechanization, 202 
Industrial production, medieval, 110-115 
Inflation, 16th-century, 

in Asia, 210 

in Europe, 187, 196 
Inikori.J., 212,213 
Inner Asia, 93 


Innovation, 15, 110-115, 116, 128, 149, 163 
Insanity. See Sanity 

Inside and Outside, 1, 5, 12-17, 30, 42, 138, 214 

Interests and values, 30-31, 37-41 

Invention, independent, 11-12, 47, 208 

Inventiveness, 12-14, 17, 105, 108-109, 110- 
115, 208 

Iron, 88-89, 169 
early use, 7,75,88-89, 109, 141 
iron age, 7, 50, 88-89, 91, 107, 109, 131 

Irrawaddy plain, 85 

Irvine, E, 141 

Irwin, G., 141 

Isichei, E., 175 

Islam, 119, 122, 123 

Italy, 166, 171, 187, 192, 197, 211 

Ivanov, V., 144 

Jackson, P., 138, 139 
Jagirdars, 158 

James, C. L. R., 55, 137, 203-206, 212 
Japan, 5, 30, 82, 149, 155, 167, 216 
Japheth, 44 
Java, 71, 120, 166 
Jett, S. C, 47 
Jews, 99 

Jha, S. C, 176, 177 
Joly, N., 45 

Jones, E. L., 50, 58, 67, 70-71, 77, 86-87, 89, 91, 
93, 104-108, 110, 120-121, 123-124, 131- 
133, 135, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 147, 
150, 151 

Judeo-Christian teleology, 114 

Jung, C, 98, 144 

Kabaker, A., 173 
Kagan, D., 46 
Kalah, 167, 172, 177, 
Kant, I., 214 

Kantianism, Neo-Kantianism, 48, 101, 214 

Kaplan, B., 144 

Kea, R., 174, 175, 176 

Keightley T, 43, 44, 48 

Kenya, 49 

Kertzer, D., 150 

Keynesianism, 27 

Kilwa, 166, 208, 

Kinder, H., 149 

Kitching, G., 139 

Koepping, K.-R, 47 

Korea, 147 

Kosambi, D. D., 146, 175 
Kuhn, T., 37, 49 

Labib, S., 207, 209 

counterdiffusion of, 16 

colonial, 193-196 
Labor force, colonial Americas and 

Europe, 193, 195, 196 
Laclau, E., 205, 213 
Laibman, D., 142 

Lambert, D., 71, 140 
Landlords, 158-160, 162, 170 

medieval European, 104, 159, 160 

peasant, 127, 160 
Lane, E, 178 

Languages, primitive, 97, 145 

Las Casas, B. 195 

Lasktt, P., 131, 133-134, 150, 151 

Le Roy Ladurie, E., 150 

Lee, G., 150 

Lee, R., 174 

Lelekov, L., 144 

Levant, 191 

Levidow, L., 139 

Levitzion, N., 176, 209 

L6vy-Bruhl, L., 97, 101, 144 

Lewis, A., 177 

Lewis, W. A., 48 

Li Ching-neng, 175, 176 

Liceria, M. A. C, 175 

Lie, B., 149 

Lisbon, 190 

Livingstone, D., 23 

Llobera, J., 142 

Lo Jung-pang, 177 

Location, accessibility, 2, 157, 161-162, 169- 

173, 181, 182, 197 
Lombok, 120 
Lopez, R., 147, 210 

Love and marriage, in Europe, 132—133 
Lovell, W.G., 209,211 
Lowie, R., 49 
Lowith, K., 145 
Luzon, 85, 120 

MaHuan, 177,209 
Mahogunji, A., 175 
Macauley, T., 48 

Macfarlane, A, 131-133, 150, 151 
Madeira, 182, 191 
Madrid, 195 

Magalhaes-Godinho, V, 21 1 
Maghreb, 171, 181, 183 
Magna Carta, 122 
Magubane, B., 139 
Mahalingam, X, 175, 176, 177 
Maize, 107, 156 
Malabar, 166 
Malacca, 167, 172, 190 
Malaria, 78 

Malthus, T, 48, 66-68, 133 

Malthusian theory, 66-68, 73, 87, 129, 133-134, 

139-140, 162, 209 
Mamdani, M., 139 
Mandelbaum, M., 48 
Manila Galleons, 190 
Manila, 117 

Mann, M., 59, 86-91, 93, 107-110, 122-124, 
131-133, 139, 143, 144, 146, 147, 148, 150, 
151, 176 

Manorial system, 159-160 


Maquiladora plants, 215 
Marglin, E, 145 
Marglin, S., 101, 145 
Mariana Islands, 49 
Markets, 17th-century, 199-201 
Markham, S., 70 

Marriage pattern, European and non-European, 

129-135, 139 
Marx, K., 25, 39, 48, 76, 82-84, 86, 127, 141, 

142, 158, 159, 175, 202, 205, 210, 212 
Marxism, 46, 55-57, 77, 94-95, 137, 148, 168 

177, 202, 210, 212 
Marxists, Eurocentric, 46, 56, 58, 83, 108, 125, 

137-138, 149, 157, 162, 205, 213 
Maya civilization, 72—73 
Mbithi, P., 141 
McAlister, L, 210, 211 
McClelland, D., 100, 144 
McCurdy, D., 49, 
McKay, D., 45 

McNeill, W., 45, 46, 79, 140, 142, 143, 144, 146, 

Mead, G. H., 48, 145 
Mead, M., 97, 144 

Mediterranean, 43-44, 92, 159, 167-168, 172, 

181, 183, 200 
Megaw, J., 173 
Mekong valley, 120 

Merchant capital, 179, 188, 192, 207-208, 212 
Mesoamerica, 86, 195 
Mesopotamia, 82, 85, 120, 143 
age of, 7 

precious. See Gold; Silver 
Mexico, 20, 180, 182, 185-186, 188, 190, 

194-195, 208 
Middle East, 4, 7-8, 45^16, 63, 82-90, 109, 110, 

116, 155, 156, 167, 170, 183 
Migration, rural-urban, 161-162 
Mill, J. S., 48 
Miller, J., 76, 140, 141 
Milne, G., 140 
Minchinton, W., 211 

criminal, 144 

European. See European mind 
female, 96 

and matter. See Dualism 
primitive, 17, 95-102, 144-145, 148, 151, 

traditional, 15, 98-102, 145 
Mintz, S. W., 205,212,213 
Miskimin, H., 209, 210 
Moctezuma 185 

Modernization, 2, 27-30, 52-54, 59, 98-102, 

as history, 53-54, 136 

theory, 27-30, 98, 128-129, 131 
Mohr, E., 140 
Moluccas, 190, 192 
Montesquieu, 140, 142 
Morocco, 166, 191-192, 207, 209 

Motivation, need-achievement (McClelland), 

100, 125 
Mozambique, 49 
Mukherjee, Radhakamal, 176 
Mukherjee, Ramkrishna, 176 
MullerJ., 43 
Myth, 59 

Nag, M., 139, 140 
Naqvi, H. K., 177 

Nationalism, nation-state, 119-120, 172, 214 
Nazism, 27, 63-64 

Needham, J., 56, 115, 137, 143, 146, 147, 177, 

Neocolonialism, 26—30 
Neo-Kantianism. See Kantianism 
Neolithic revolution. See Agricultural revolu- 

Neolocality, 131-133 

Netherlands, Holland, 187-188, 194, 197 

Neumann, E., 144 

New Guinea, 155 

New World (term), 207 

Newfoundland, 192 

Niane, D., 209, 211 

Nicaragua, 195 

Nicholas, D., 175, 176 

Niger Valley, 86 

Nile river and valley, 82, 86, 166, 183 
Nisbet, R., 48 
Noah, 43, 44, 48 
Nurul Hasan, S., 176 
Nye, P., 140 

O'Keefe, P., 141 
Oceania, 158 
Okello, R., 142, 216 
Olmec civilization, 208 
Onimode, B., 174, 175 
Operation Bootstrap, 49 
Orient Express model, 4, 45, 91 
Oriental despotism, 3, 4, 25, 80-92, 120, 142, 
157, 171, 174 

Hall on, 87, 147 

Jones on, 86-87, 120 

Mann on, 87-89, 109, 147 

Marx and Engels on, 81-82 

Weber on, 83-84, 86, 103-104 

Wittfogel on, 84-88 
Orwin, C. S., 146 

Ottoman empire, region, 20, 45, 81, 96 
Outside. See Inside 

Overpopulation, 66-68, 121, 129, 133, 139. See 
also Demography; Malthusianism 

Pacey, A., 147 
Padgug, R., 125,. 149 
Padmore, G., 55 
Paleolithic, 124 
Palmer, R., 149 
Panikkar, K. M., 55, 209 
Paris Basin, 170, 195, 197 


Parker, D., 150, 151 
Parsons, J. B., 176 
Peace ^^oirjps 49 

Peasants, 100-101, 107, 109, 112, 133-134, 154, 
161-162, 214 

Chinese, 166 

European, 104 

Indian, 127, 166, 175 
Pendleton, R., 140 
Pepper, 166, 169 
Perry, W., 47, 49 
Peru, 184-185, 188, 190 
Philosophy, 26, 101, 106, 145, 214 
Philpin, C, 140, 149, 150 
Phoenicians, 47, 208 
Piaget,J., 99, 101, 144 
Piracy, 188, 196-197 
Pires, X, 167, 170, 176, 177 
Pizarro, F., 185 

Plagues, 78, 142. See also AIDS; Disease, Black 

counterdiffusion from non-Europe, 16, 77 
Plantations, 166, 188, 191-193, 197-201, 204- 
205, 212. See also Slave plantation 

Brazil, 191-193 

Caribbean, 198-201 
Ploetz, C, 44 

Plow, 88-89, 110-112, 174 
Poland, 147 

Polygenesis, theory of, 3, 23, 43—45, 61 
Portugal, 181, 188, 192, 194, 197, 209 
Potato, 156 

in Europe, 92, 201 
Potosi, 195 
Powell, J., 23 
Prakash, I., 177 

Precious metals. See Gold; Silver 

Prescott, J., 140 

Printing, in China, Korea, 117 

Production versus exchange, 168-170, 177, 205 

Progress, 1, 14, 16, 19, 20, 22, 24, 48, 53-54, 60, 

102, 114, 132, 136, 155, 180, 206 
Progressiveness. See Progress 
Property, private, 15, 25-26, 83-84, 88, 104, 
116, 158 

concept of, 15, 25—26 

in medieval Europe, 83-84, 104, 127 

in non-Europe, 25-26, 83-84, 116, 158, 175 
Protocapitalism, 152, 165-173, 181 

in Asia and Africa, 153, 165-173, 190, 195, 

Protocapitalist system, network, 168-173, 177 
Psychic Unity of Mankind, , 12, 47, 94-96, 184, 


Psychology, 17, 94-100. See also Mind, Reason- 

cross-cultural, 98-100, 144 

primitive. See Mind, primitive 
Puerto Rico, 49 
Putting-out system, 166, 215 
Purcell, V, 116, 177 
Pyle, G., 142, 216 

Qaisar, A. J., 177 
Quackenbos, J., 44 

Racism, 27, 29, 43-44, 61-65, 138 
cultural, 64 
moderate, 64—65 

and myth of European miracle, 1, 4, 29, 61-65, 

Weber and, 64-65, 138 
Radell, D. R., 211 
Radin, P., 49, 97, 144 
Rain forest, 72-76, 141 

Rational Modern Adult European Man, 96-97 
Rationality, 15, 17, 19, 21, 94-109, 145, 149, 
186, 214 

and diffusionism, 17, 60, 94-108, 214 
European, 15, 17, 19, 27, 30, 47, 88, 94-108, 
110, 114, 120, 129, 135, 139, 143, 149, 206 
Hall on, 87 

Indo-European, 107, 109 

Jones on, 58, 104-107, 120 

Jung on, 98 

Levy-Bruhl on, 97 

Mann on, 107-110 

Piaget on, 99, 101 

Weber on, 102-104, 145 
Rawski, E., 175, 176 
Raychaudhuri, T. 175, 176 
Reasoning. See also Thought, abstract and 

theoretical vs. empirical, 17, 96- 101, 105 
Reclus, E., 45 
Red R. (Vietnam), 120 
Reductionism. See Holism 
Reformation, Protestant, 103, 124, 197 
Regionalism, 27 
Relativism, cultural, 27 

Religion and rise of Europe, 8, 18-19, 29, 60-61 

Renaissance, 117, 187 

Restlessness, of Europeans, 108 

Rhine R.,93, 211 


wet, agriculture, 85, 143, 166, 169, 174 
Ritter, K. 82, 142 
Robbins R., 43 
Roberts, D., 140 

Roberts, J., 45, 46, 140, 141, 147 
Robinson, C, 205, 212, 213 
Rodinson, M., 177 
Rodney, W, 175, 205, 213 
Rogers, E., 100, 144 

R0hr, A., 149 
Roman land law, 25 

Rome, 4, 8, 25, 50, 107, 110, 125, 147, 195 

Rorty, R., 145 

Rostow, W, 53 

Rotation, 74, 111, 113-114 

fallowless, 114 

shifting, 74 

three-field, 111, 113-114 
two-field, 113-114 


Roy, M. N., 55 

Rules, cultural, and exploitation, 212 
Russia, 147 
Rwanda, 71 

Sack, R., 102, 145 
Sahara, 76, 183 
Sahel, 76 

Said, E., 48, 58, 144 
Sanderson, E., 44 
Sanity, insanity, 17, 96 
Sao Tome, 191, 195-196 
Sastri, K.N., 176 
Savagery, zone of, 14, 44 
Savages, 4, 60, 96 
Schmidt, W., 49 
Schweder, R., 145 

Science, social, 31, 37, 38-41, 54, 97 
Seccombe, W., 139 
Semitic peoples, 44, 63 
Semo, E., 211 

Serfs, 127-128, 134, 154, 160, 175- 176 
Service tenure, 158 
Seville, 189, 195 

Sexual frustration, and rise of Europe (Stone), 

Shannon, G., 142, 216 
Sharma, R. S., 55, 146, 175 
Shem, 44 

Sheridan, R., 205, 213 
Sherif, A., 175, 176, 207 
Shipping, 169-170, 181, 196 

African and Asian, 117-118, 170, 181 

medieval, 117-118, 169-170 
Shoemaker, E, 144 
Siberia, 199 
Silver, 183, 188-191 

American production, 188-191 

and Asian trade, 118, 190 

stock in E. Hemisphere, 189 
Simkin C, 177 
Simonsen, R., 211 
Sinclair, P., 141 

Slave plantation, 70, 125, 191-198, 204-205 
Slave trade, 70, 79, 188, 192, 199, 203-205 
Slavery, 62, 70, 79. 107, 125, 170, 192, 195, 197, 

203-205, 208, 212 
Smallpox, 78 
Smith, Abdullahi, 175 
Smith, Adam, 142 
Smith, C.T., 146,210 
Sofala, 166, 208 
Soils. See also Agriculture 

fertility, 72-77, 85, 89, 91 

gley, in Europe, 92 

podzolic, in Europe, 92 

temperate, 90-92 

tropical, 42, 71-76, 140 

waterlogged, 92 
Solow, B., 205, 213 
South China Sea, 92 
Sovereignty, concept of, 15, 25 

Soviet Union, Russia, 29, 76, 81, 84 
Spain, 181, 188, 192, 194, 197 
Spatial revolution, medieval, 169-173, 181 
Spatial transport of commodities. See Location; 

Spatial revolution 
Spencer, H., 22, 48 
Spices, 168, 192 
Spradley,J., 49 
Stages, evolutionary, 125 
Stagnation, cultural, 6, 17,84, 90., 116, 124-125 
Stagnation of Chinese society, theory of, 1 15- 

119, 142, 147 
Stalinism, and theory of Oriental 

despotism, 81 
State, 8, 58, 81, 85, 87, 94, 119-123, 141, 147, 
157, 161, 172 

in Asia, 123, 126. See also Empire; Oriental 

medieval European, 122 

modern, 120-122 

size of, 94, 119-122 
Steele, E., 44 
Steele, J., 44 
Steward, ]., 47, 172, 178 
Stirrup, iron, 111 
Stocking, G., 47, 48, 138, 144 
Stone, L, 130, 134-135, 150, 151 
Sudan, 157, 183 
Sudanic caravans, 93 
Sugar, 166, 169, 191, 200 
Sugar-cane. See Sugar 
Sulawesi, 120 
Sumatra, 120 
Swai, B., 48 
Sweden, 147 
Sweet potato, 107, 156 
Sweezy, P., 149, 177 
Swindell K., 139 
Swinton, W., 44 

Taeuber.I., 131, 150 
Takrur, 209 
Talkington, L, 216 
Tarzan, 97, 105 
Tawney, R. H., 211 
Taylor, G., 47, 49 

Technological determinism, 108-109 
Technology, 29, 57, 94, 108-119, 161, 184, 186, 

ancient, 109-110 

Chinese medieval, 116-119 

European medieval, 110-115, 128, 160-161, 
Temu, A., 48 
Tenochtitlan, 185 
Ternate, 196 

Testing (ACT, SAT, 1Q), 101, 145 
Textbooks, as cultural windows, 6, 43-46 
Textiles, 169, 192, 203. See also Cotton 
Thackeray, W., 48 
Thailand, 147 
Thalheimer, M., 44 


Thapar, R., 48 

Theory, scientific, 17, 24, 31-32, 34 

Third World, 54 

Third Worldism, 79, 125, 149 

Thorndyke, L, 147, 210 

Thought, abstract and concrete, 17, 96—99, 103. 

See also Reasoning 
Thrupp, S., 176, 212 
Tigris-Euphrates valley, 82, 86 
Tillinghast, W, 44 
Tobacco, 159, 192 
Tolman, E., 38, 49 
Torras.J., 150 
Toulmin, S., 48 
Toynbee, A., 71 
Toyoda, T, 177 
Trade winds, 182 
Traditional society, 6, 68, 98, 128 
Traditionalism, 15, 98-102, 145 
Transoceanic diffusion, 11, 14, 207-209 
Travel, radii, 181 

Tributary mode of production, 154 
Trigger, B., 138 
Tropical soils. See Soils 
Tropical-nastiness theory, 69—80 
Tropics, humid (term), 71 
Trypanosomiasis, 79-80 
Tung, C, 176 

Tunnel history, 3-8, 103, 109-110, 115, 150, 

180, 187 
Turkey, 45, 183 
Turner, B. L, 143 
Turshen, M., 142 
Tytler, A., 43 

Udovitch, A., 177 
Underdevelopment, 153, 180 
Underdevelopment theory, 55—56, 137, 149 
Uniformitarianism, cultural, 42, 47, 122, 124, 

184, 208 
United Nations, 28 
United States, 28, 43 
Urbanization. See Cities 
Usman, Y. B., 175 

Validation of belief, 34 

Values, 15, 30-31, 37^11, 103, 207 

Vampires, 16, 21, 47 

Van Baren, E, 140 

VanLeur,J. C, 55,56, 137 

Van Sertima, I., 208-209 

Venice, 167 

Venturi, E, 142 

Verifiability, 34, 36, 40 

Verification of belief. See Verifiability 

Vijayanagar, 170 

Vilar, P., 210 

Village, 90 

European, 159-160, 176 

Indian, 127, 159-160, 175-176 
Virgin Islands, US, 49 

Vishnu-Mittre, 173 

Vives, J. Vicens, 210 

de Vries.J., 209, 210, 211 

Wage labor, 167, 202-205 

and slave labor, 203-206, 212 

in post-conquest America, 189 
Wai Andah, B., 141 
Wallerstein, I., 51, 149, 205, 211, 213 
Warren, B., 58, 138 
Watson, A, 210 
Watts, S., 142, 216 
Watts, S.J., 216 
Webb W. P., 210 
Weber, G., 43 

Weber, M., 15, 47, 59, 64-65, 83-84, 86-90, 
102-104, 115-116, 124, 131, 138, 142, 143, 
145, 158, 170 

Weberianism, 54, 64-65, 87, 102- 104, 114, 117 

Wei R., 86 

Werner, H., 99, 144 

Werner, K. E, 61, 124, 147-149 

West, the, 1, 46, 94 

West Indies, 20, 55, 180, 182, 203, 207. See also 
under specific topics 
and industrial revolution in Britain, 203-206 
Whaling, 207, 192 
Wheat, 169, 197 
Wheatley, P., 57, 137, 177 
Whelpley, S., 43 
White, G., 145 

White, Lynn, Jr., 61, 108, 110-115, 146, 147, 

White man's grave, 78 
Whitehead, A. N., 37, 49, 145 
Whitman, J., 144 
Whitmore.T, 209,211 
Wiethoff, B., 177 
Wilken, G., 140 
Willard, E., 43 

Williams, E., 48, 137, 203-206, 212, 213 

Williams, R., 48 

Williams thesis, 55, 205 

Wisner, B., 141 

Wittfogel, K., 83-88, 142 

Wolf, E., 137 

Women, and rationality, 96-97 
Woolen trade, English, 191-192 
World models, 30-31, 4M3, 214 
World system, capitalist, 206 
Wrigley.E., 151 
Wunder, H., 150 

Yadava, B., 175, 176 
Yam, 74-75 
Yang Lien-sheng, 177 
Yellow R. 86 

Zamindars, 24, 175 
Zimbabwe, 157, 166, 197 
Zwernemann, J., 47